David Foster Wallace was, in his own estimation, “a near great junior tennis player”. Between the ages of 12 and 15, he competed in tournaments all over the Midwest, at one point achieving a regional ranking of 17. He wrote about the experience in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”, the first – and most challenging – of the five essays in this volume. “Derivative Sport” is unlike any other sporting memoir you’ll encounter: it combines a (somewhat sketchy) account of life on the junior circuit with voluminous divagations into climate, topography and geometry. Wallace’s aim appears to be to demonstrate that his success on the tennis court was largely accidental – less a reward for talent and perseverance than the unforeseeable outcome of freakish circumstance.
Because of where he grew up – the Illinois Corn Belt – Wallace felt at home “inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids”. A certain “weird proclivity for intuitive math” meant, moreover, that he found the “geometric thinking” required by tennis (all those rapid trigonometric calculations) straightforward. And most crucially, unlike practically every other player on the planet, he relished playing in the wind. (This, too, he links to his mathematical prowess: “I could … admit the differential complication of wind into my calculations.”) Being at ease with the wind gave Wallace a tremendous advantage, since he grew up in a pocket of Illinois known as Tornado Alley. The wind, he writes, “informed and deformed” life in his hometown, and did “massive damage to many central Illinois junior players”. Yet Wallace was able to cultivate a “robotic detachment” from his environment, and so spent his youth “beating up on” more naturally gifted players. Facing him – especially in a howling gale – must have been a nightmare.
But Wallace’s success was necessarily shortlived. As he got older and better, he started competing in more prestigious tournaments. At such events (“into which my rural excellence was an easement”), he encountered conditions less favourable to his game. As he puts it: “Once I hit a certain level of tournament facilities, I was disabled because I was unable to accommodate the absence of disabilities to accommodate.” And so his career flatlined. Players he’d once outwitted now out-bludgeoned him. At Amherst, the small east-coast college he started attending in 1980, he barely made the team.
Though Wallace claims that the decline of his tennis fortunes provided him with his first taste of “true adult sadness”, one senses, reading the essay, that he wasn’t too cut up about it. The truth – which he all too obviously grasps – is that he was constitutionally unsuited to life as an athlete. There was too much else going on in his overdeveloped brain. Yet exactly what remains unknowable. “Derivative Sport”, a piece about sneakily achieved athletic success, is itself an artfully sneaky (and entirely captivating) piece of writing. Under the guise of being modest, Wallace is actually being slyly boastful (I alone was clever enough to capitalise on my environment), while also revealing very little of himself. What the essay does make abundantly clear, though, is that tennis, at least as a sport to play, couldn’t bear the weight of Wallace’s over-intellectualising tendencies. He may, for a while, have felt at home within lines and grids; but when he got older, they stopped being able to contain him.
And so Wallace quit tennis. But he never turned his back on the sport. For the remainder of his life, it continued to fascinate him – and he returned to it regularly in writing. Infinite Jest, his 1996 magnum opus, is set partly in a tennis academy, and deals with the life – does this sound familiar? – of a preternaturally intelligent tennis prodigy. The sport, moreover, inspired some of his finest non-fiction: most famously his 2006 piece about Roger Federer, which would become (along with “Consider the Lobster” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) one of his best-known essays; but also a handful of earlier pieces, written for various US magazines. Now, for the first time, these have been gathered in a single volume, with an elegant introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Read together, these pieces demonstrate a few things. One is that Wallace’s grasp of tennis was truly prodigious. The analytical powers that must have ended up hindering him as a player made him a peerless observer of the sport. He has often been described as the best tennis writer of all time, and these essays don’t disabuse that notion. Wallace is interested in – and understands – every aspect of the game, from its strategic complications and technical evolution through to sponsorship deals and methods of hydration. In itself, of course, such knowledge isn’t exceptional. But where Wallace stands apart is that he is never boring with it. One of the marvels of his writing is the way it combines a nerd’s outlook with a novelist’s gift for exposition. And so when you read, say, the third essay in this book – a 12,000-word screed on the long-forgotten American journeyman Michael Joyce – you don’t begrudge the need to break off from the narrative to take in a half-page footnote on the politics of players’ appearance fees.
Something else about tennis clearly attracted Wallace: the opportunity it gave him to ruminate on excellence. His interest in this topic was by no means impersonal: his life, after all, was devoted to its pursuit. Four of the five essays here are about what it means to be great – or nearly great – on a tennis court. (The fifth, “Democracy and Commerce at the US Open”, avoids the subject, and is to my mind the only dud in the pack.) Wallace approaches greatness from a variety of angles. “How Tracey Austin Broke My Heart”, a review of the American player’s 1992 memoir Beyond Center Court, explores its psychology. Why, Wallace wants to know, are top athletes so uniformly unenlightening about their achievements, when they are the only people who actually know what it feels like to be so mind-bogglingly good? Wallace answers his own question (and lets Austin et al off the hook) by introducing a typically ingenious paradox: it “may well be”, he says, that only those who aren’t divinely gifted as athletes (ie spectators) are capable of seeing and articulating sporting genius, while those who actually “receive and act out the gift” must necessarily be “blind and dumb about it – and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence”.
Infinite Jest at 20: 20 things you need to know
In his essay on Michael Joyce (“as of this day the 79th best tennis player on planet Earth”), Wallace considers the workaday life of someone who, though outstanding at what he does, will never be a household name. The essay is a lovely, lolling thing, circling around its subject without reaching any firm conclusions, but allowing Wallace to indulge his omnivorous interest in the sport. Readers (like me) who come to it after the Federer essay might find some of its arguments – particularly those that deal with the development of the “power-baseline game” – familiar, but this doesn’t matter: it’s a pleasure to encounter them in their earlier incarnations. The Federer essay, by contrast, is a much more urgent piece of writing, and that’s because, this time, Wallace’s arguments do sharpen to a point: the essay ends with the suggestion that Federer has, “literally and figuratively, re-embodied men’s tennis” – in other words, has shown that the sport hadn’t reached its “evolutionary endpoint”. I don’t think it’s fanciful to imagine that, in suggesting this, Wallace was also thinking of his own writing, and his need to find a way out of the creative impasse that trying to complete his final novel, The Pale King, had produced. The sad thing is that he never did find a way out. Within two years of writing the essay, he was dead.
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David Foster Wallace is not for everybody.
The late author was arguably the first great hipster writer, a mixture of Kerouac-like stream of consciousness and Feynmanian technical exuberance. His prose is gorgeous, but it's also infuriating, full of tics and asides. A lot of people love his 1996 novel "Infinite Jest," but there are also a lot of copies out there that were abandoned after a few chapters. "While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences," Jay McInerney wrote in his New York Times review of the book.
That's a little harsh, to be sure, but it's not wrong. The good news here is that nobody is likely to say the same thing about Wallace's tennis writing, which has been collected into a single volume by the Library of America. "String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis" hits store shelves next week.
If you're a tennis fan, you've undoubtedly read Wallace's heralded 2006 New York Times piece, "Federer as Religious Experience" (a.k.a., "Federer Both Flesh and Not"). He coined the phrase "Federer Moments" and memorably captured what it's like to witness one on TV: "I don't know what-all sounds were involved," he wrote, "but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs."
That's enough said about that. It's a great piece -- a classic. You know this already. Read it again to remind yourself.
What you might not know is that Wallace's love letter to Roger Federer is not necessarily the best piece he ever wrote about tennis. The four other contenders join the Federer essay in the 138-page "String Theory," taking readers from the 2006 Wimbledon final to the lower levels of the professional game and beyond.
Wallace played on the Midwest Juniors circuit as a teen; his love for and knowledge of tennis rivaled anyone who's ever written about the sport. The way he picks apart what it is and what it takes to play tennis at a high level is a beautiful thing: profound and moving and insightful.
Which is not to say that the David Foster Wallace who writes about tennis is an entirely different creature than the David Foster Wallace who wrote "Infinite Jest" and the 1987 novel "The Broom of the System." Sometimes he gets too deep inside his analysis, and it twirls into a mental Rube Goldberg contraption. "[A] shot's depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball's height over the net itself determined by the player's body position, grip on the racket, degree of backswing, angle of racket face, and that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings," he wrote. OK, that's all true enough, but the thing is, he's barely cleared his throat here in his description of a typical tennis shot.
That said, his excesses are somehow more bearable -- and more enjoyable -- in his tennis writing than in his fiction, perhaps because in the next paragraph, when he finally gets there, he's likely going to showcase his truest gift: straight-up descriptive reportage. Here's a snippet from "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie and Human Completeness":
"Many of these players in the 'Qualies,' or qualifying rounds, have girlfriends in tow, sloppily beautiful European girls with sandals and patched jeans and leather backpacks, girlfriends who set up cloth lawnchairs and sun themselves next to their players' practice courts. Most of the girlfriends have something indefinable about them that suggests extremely wealthy parents whom the girls are trying to piss off by hooking up with an obscure professional tennis player."
This perfectly captures the subculture of low-level professional tennis, a fishbowl existence where the players are on the outside of the bowl looking in at the big stars they want to be. It must be pointed out that the last sentence of the quote above is actually a footnote in Wallace's essay. Everyone who's read Wallace knows how much he loved footnotes, and his fans find his use of them charming and even thrilling. And they are fun -- for a while. Then they become oppressive. The reader feels obliged to read them as the little numbers come along, to keep the footnotes in context. But that just breaks up Wallace's rhythm, bringing his fast-moving narrative to a jarring stop, time and again. It becomes exhausting and, ultimately, aggravating. What's most frustrating about his footnote fetish is that the best of his notes fit quite organically into the body of the text, as the above example shows. And most of the ones that don't fit could be jettisoned entirely without lessening the whole.
Wallace also captures tennis' biggest stars with the most incisive of sketches, and they stay with you -- because they're so perfect. "[Pete] Sampras always wears light-blue shorts that sweat through every place but his jockstrap," he wrote, "which looks funny and kind of endearing, like he's an incontinent child -- Sampras is surprisingly childlike and cute on the court, in person, in contrast to [Andre] Agassi, who's about as cute as a Port Authority whore." (This was written in 1996, before Agassi had matured and transformed himself into the beloved "Baseline Buddha.")
Wallace, who died in 2008 at 46, was writing about the professional game right when equipment and fitness advances were making traditional serve-and-volley tennis impossible. The so-called "power baseline" style had taken over top-level tennis by the late 1990s, and Wallace, for the most part, was not happy about it. His arguments remain valid a couple of decades later, especially for those who favor Federer's flair over Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal's repetitive approach. "The power-baseline game itself has been compared to Metal or Grunge," Wallace wrote (in a footnote, of course). "What a top P.B.er really resembles is film of the old Soviet Union putting down a rebellion. It's awesome, but brutally so, with a grinding, faceless quality about its power that renders that power curiously dull and empty."
"String Theory" expertly articulates why tennis fans love the sport so, capturing both the human drudgery behind its mastery and, for those who make it to the world-class level, its otherworldliness. While there are a few uninteresting sentences in this slim book, there are no uninteresting pages. Every single one of them stands as a monument to Wallace's talent -- and his dedication to the game.
-- Douglas Perry