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Photo: Serena Williams Playing Tennis in Outer Space

Reuters/Jason Reed

In a boxing match, the combatants are rarely more than a couple of feet apart. Even the punch that separates them absolutely—the moment marking the difference between victory and defeat—unites them in brutal intimacy. That’s one of the reasons why boxing is relatively easy to photograph.

One-on-one sports where the players are separated by a net and by considerable physical distance, on the other hand, pose obvious challenges for the photographer. Pictures that show both participants in a tennis match, however closely contested, tend to make it look as though one person is doing something while the other is just blurrily waiting. The difficulty is exacerbated now that matches are fought out at maximum physical estrangement, from base line to base line. Hence the attraction of those increasingly rare exchanges when both players are at the net, within touching distance of each other. Not surprisingly, then, pictures of singles tennis matches tend to focus on just one player. The photographer’s difficulties in this regard are nicely echoed by the audience, whose heads have to swivel constantly from left to right, from one player to another.

Faced, in addition, with a pretty standardized array of endlessly repeated strokes and poses, photographers rely on the changing background colors of the court for variety. A given player will appear stranded in the red desert of the clay of Roland Garros, or grazing the lush green grass of Wimbledon, or highlighted against a pink sea of faces watching from the stands.

Location: Melbourne, Australia Date: January 17, 2014 Photographer: Jason Reed

In this picture, these compositional contingencies elevate Serena Williams to a level of cosmic isolation. The strict blue rectangle of a court at the Australian Open is transformed into the blue curve of Earth, surrounded by the darkness of outer space. Whereas the crucial points of a match are sometimes decided by distances so small that the human eye needs the kind of technological assistance that used to be the preserve of NASA, the game in this photo is unfolding at the interplanetary level of the Greek myths, where gods routinely grab a passing comet and hurl it at a rival who has slept with his sister and will thereafter be condemned to serve as a ball boy in 100-degree heat for the rest of eternity.

At the same time, and in keeping with the trend for tournament promos to make top players—the stars—look as if they are computer-generated, it could pass for a shot for an ad campaign dreamed up by the manufacturer of new, reduced-gravity sneakers. The tag line? “Serena Williams: Out of this World.” We even have the ball as a tiny yellow satellite of Planet Serena—which makes us suddenly conscious of how it would have been even better if it were her sister Venus floating there in zero-g. But whereas the celestial bodies rotate around each other with immensely slow reliability, sport is nothing if not unpredictable. Serena went out against Ava Ivanovic in her next match—sent crashing down to Earth.