It isn’t hard to see the appeal of tennis to the writer. It’s a solitary endeavor (singles at least) in which success rests on personal agency. There’s the aesthetic aspect — the spectacle at its highest level of lithe athleticism and impudent finesse. And it does convenient duty as literary device; an arena for mano-a-mano character study and conflict in which how one plays offers a window into personality. This is how tennis is characteristically treated in literature. In The Information, Martin Amis, devout hacker himself, pits rivalrous writers against one another inside the lines — the supple but showy virtuosity of Richard Tull versus the point-grubbing retrieving of Gwynn Barry. It’s also the premise of perhaps the finest work on the subject, Levels of the Game, in which John McPhee freights a play-by-play of the 1968 U.S. Open semi-final between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner with an examination of the nation’s sociopolitical fault lines, as crystallized by the players’ contrasting styles. Besides Amis, literary fans include Vladimir Nabokov (almost as adroit with racket as butterfly net), Anne Lamott, ardent Federerphile, J.M. Coetzee, Ellen Gilchrist, Abraham Verghese, and dedicated court cruiser Geoff Dyer.
All of this to say that David Foster Wallace has good company in being seduced by tennis. But he is perhaps the only author of serious literary repute to have himself wielded a racket in semi-serious competition. Back when he looked upon reading novels chiefly as a fun way to ingest facts, Wallace was, in his own words, “a near great junior tennis player,” with a dour, attritional style that took him, at 14, to 17th in the U.S. Tennis Association’s Midwestern rankings for his age bracket. Here, he stalled out amid delayed puberty and salubrious country club courts that quashed his competitive advantage: a mastery of the elements on the wind-strafed municipal courts on which lowlier tournaments are typically contested. But tennis remained a lifelong passion; a personal touchstone that, most prominently among the references to it in his fiction, supplied a backdrop for Infinite Jest. It was a topic he also returned to repeatedly in his non-fiction. Across his career, it was perhaps “his most consistent theme at the surface level,” notes John Jeremiah Sullivan in his introduction to String Theory, the new collection of Wallace’s essays on tennis issued by the Library of America.
Wallace knew his Levels of the Game — a marked-up copy is among the personal effects in his archive at the University of Texas at Austin — and he’s known to have esteemed McPhee as a writer. But his approach to the sport is altogether more technical, not to mention rambunctious and free-wheeling. These proclivities are evident from the title of String Theory’s strongest piece, published in 1996 in Esquire, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.” And they are on display in that essay’s opening, which, as Sullivan notes, emulates McPhee’s limpid first lines in Levels — “Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air…” — but layers on the “thick” description:
When Michael Joyce of Los Angeles serves, when he tosses the ball and his face rises to track it, it looks like he’s smiling, but he’s not really smiling — his face’s circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the top of the ball at the top of the toss’s rise.
Joyce is not a member of the game’s elite a la Ashe en route to the U.S. Open title, but “the 79th best tennis player on planet earth” toiling in the pre-tournament qualifying rounds of U.S. Open warm-up event, the Canadian Open. Like McPhee, Wallace is interested in those levels of the game, but, more literally, as in the mountains beyond mountains of tennis’s pecking order. The ex-junior standout Wallace remains an avid player. He packs his racket for Montreal, fancying he can hold his own on the practice court with some “hot young U.S pros,” then documents his “awe and sad surprise” at beholding Joyce in action:
“This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something like 90% of the time.”
The difference of degree is such that it is a difference of kind. “I do not play and never have played the same game as these low-ranked pros.”
Still, even this altitudinous level is a foothill compared to the game’s summit. Wallace documents the small deficits that add up to a gulf between Joyce (who made it to the second round of the main draw in Montreal and topped out as world number 62 a few months later) and then-top-ranked male Andre Agassi — the fleetness of foot that is a half-step slower, the timing a hair off, the kink in his backhand versus Agassi’s fluid stroke.
Wallace’s deploys his full shot-making repertoire throughout the piece. The expression of forbearance Joyce wears waiting out the tantrum of a player he is soundly beating reminds him of “Vegas dealers…when a gambler they’re cleaning out is rude or abusive.” He discerns an “abacus of sweat” on another player’s brow and evokes the odd grace of tennis’s rites: “ball-boys move for the ball and reconfigure complexly…” He’s particularly inspired on the idiosyncrasies of former great players — “the odd Tourettic way [Vitas] Gerulaitis used to whip his head from side to side while bouncing the ball before his toss…,” and the resemblance of John McEnroe, at serve, to “a figure on an Egyptian frieze” (anyone doubting the acuity of these observations can verify them here and here). He’s also satirical; mock-swooning over Joyce — “you can just tell by looking at him out there that he’s totally likeable and cool” — and almost epigrammatic: “the realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughter house does to a well-presented cut of sirloin.” But, finally, he is exercised by the grandeur and “grotesquery” of Joyce:
…[T]he radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain of exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.
The collection’s best-known piece “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (published in 2006 in The New York Times) opens with Wallace’s fanboy rapture at various sublime passages of play (“Federer Moments”) conjured by the Swiss maestro, and then considers the disruptive effect of the equipment arms race widely held to have reduced tennis to brutal slugfest. How then to explain the black swan of Roger Federer — his sovereignty atop modern muscular tennis with a supposedly atavistic game founded on elegance and artistry? Foremost among the capabilities conferred by larger, lighter rackets is the ability to whip them though the air more vigorously to impart ball-blurring spin, notes Wallace. This permits superior power — by lacing the ball with vicious topspin so it describes a sharper parabola over the net, players can strike the ball harder while landing it within the lines. But there are other dividends: the ability to find oblique angles — previously only possible at net — from the baseline. Federer, trafficking in power, spin, and angle, is tapping the full arsenal of possibilities opened up by advances in racket technology. He is a one-man insurgency, revolutionizing the sport “from within the modern game…showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh.”
Stated thus, it sounds like a narrowly technical essay. But Wallace is collecting string for a wider point about the transfiguring effect of outsize achievement in any realm. Browsing Wimbledon’s junior tournament he observes a “variegated ballet…[d]rop shots and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three points ahead.”
“Genius is not replicable,” he concludes. “Inspiration, though, is contagious and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
In Federer himself, Wallace seems less interested. Throughout this collection he gravitates to more relatable figures — the also-ran Joyce and, in the book’s most poignant essay, “the first real child star in women’s tennis,” Tracy Austin. Wallace’s review of Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story appears at first blush a mismatch as he skewers the fluffy inanities of a standard-issue, ghost-written ex-athlete’s autobiography. But he’s driving toward something deeper. Austin was U.S. Open champion at 16, world number one at 17, then her body rebelled. Chronically injured, she effectively retired at 21 before attempting a comeback five years later that ended before it began after a van broadsided her car smashing her knee.
“The facts of Tracy Austin’s life and its trajectory are almost classically tragic,” writes Wallace.
[Her] most conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success turned out to be also her flaw and bane…The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art…was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit…
This was a sports autobiography that, because of the “transcendently interesting…career” of its subject, could have lived up to its dust jacket billing, delivering a “truly inspirational” tale about adversity and the human spirit. But Wallace delves beyond the book’s platitudes — what if Austin’s anodyne account penetrates to the “essence” of great athletes; how they can “simply and superbly act” in the clutch?
What if, when Tracy Austin writes that after her 1989 car crash, ‘I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it,’ the statement is not only true but exhaustively descriptive of the entire acceptance process she went through? Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound…?
“[T]he only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce very good prose memoir,” he concludes.
This was not a problem with the thought-addled Wallace. He doesn’t wear a game face in these pieces. The sense one gets reading them is of a discovery process, the author stumbling sentence-by-sentence toward understanding — a task to which he wholly devotes his profane, fucked-up, intellectually omnivorous self.
A collection of discretely commissioned pieces for assorted magazines marshalled over 15 years might feel disjointed. But String Theory is remarkable for its cohesiveness and seamlessness with the preoccupations of Wallace’s fiction. The idea of submission to boredom as a portal to enlightenment is a keynote of Wallace’s final, uncompleted work The Pale King, his biographer D.T. Max has written. Prefiguring this by more than a decade, in the first piece in this collection from 1991, Wallace writes of the benediction he and his playing partner experience following a particularly grueling on-court workout and the impulse behind his native love for tennis:
We were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetition brings on, a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing…a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt.
Wallace played the game with all of his person. The same intellectually questing, sensorily hungry spirit is present in his writing about it. The result is a terrific book about a human activity and life outside the lines that trammel it.