You’ve heard Robert Frost’s condescending quote about free verse, saying, he’d rather “play tennis with the net down.” And perhaps those familiar with Infinite Jest, or David Foster Wallace’s most well-known tennis essay, “Federer as Religious Experience,” might presume to have heard enough of him on the sport. But, in case you didn’t get around to picking up String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis, posthumously published two years ago, with an introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan, go for it. If you’re ever going to read about tennis, this is the time as the 50th US Open continues.
Just as Frost preferred working in the structure of meter, Wallace excelled playing in the 78’ x 27’ “sharply precise divisions and boundaries” of a court as a competitive “near-great junior tennis player.” The five essays in String Theory are worthy of your time because Wallace does what all great essayists do with their apparent subject—he takes something we are tangentially familiar with and complicates it. The tennis we see on TV, for example, compared “to live tennis” is “pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.”
For most of us, tennis is a game we occasionally hear about or watch on screens, however the speaker of these essays is uniquely positioned as a former player and gifted writer with a press pass who animates the otherwise unseen, or not yet-perceived. Reading what Wallace wrote about tennis can awaken the nonfan to the swirling insights, associations, and beauty he describes.
In 1968, when Arthur Ashe won the first men’s United States Open Tennis Championship, Wallace was six years-old, living in a farmland town of East-Central Illinois that “meteorologists call Tornado Alley.” The gusts of wind that smacked his young face and gave him his “earliest nightmares” later became an asset in his tennis game. “By thirteen,” he recalls, “I’d found a way not just to accommodate but to employ the heavy summer winds in matches.”
One knock on Wallace’s writing is the frequency with which he employs bursts of long complicated sentence structures. I’d argue that one, these discursive thoughts are part of the associative power of an essayist’s mind at work, and two, Wallace ultimately lands a significant point. In “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grostesquerie, and Human Completeness,” an essay first published in Esquire, 22 years ago, more simply as, “The String Theory,” Wallace asserts that tennis is “the most beautiful sport there is,” calling “serious tennis” a “kind of art.”
He explores beauty more fully in “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” when Wallace challenges masculine athletic norms saying, “no one ever talks about beauty, or grace, or the body” in professional sports, unless it’s tied to aggression or violence. What TV viewers also lose is the intimacy of taking in “the sheer physicality of top tennis” and “a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players reacting.” You will most likely not stumble upon an advertisement from the USTA touting the intimacy of physical beauty that you’re missing by not buying tickets to watch the US Open at Flushing Meadows’ National Tennis Center.
The TV cameras take in the action overhead and behind the baseline which diminishes the actual size of the court and pace of play. Wallace emphasizes the universal appeal to human beauty, specifically, by arguing that watching the “deceptively effortless” grace of Federer is about coming to terms with his own physical talents and limitations both as a tennis player and a corporeal self. Watching great tennis players “is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
In “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace wonders why people continue to fall for the allure of sports autobiographies when over and over again the promises made to readers on the flaps of book jackets are not kept by the author. “Maybe” readers “automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate preceptive, truthful, profound.” Yes, he contends, most athletes are either laconic, or “stunningly inarticulate.” We see this expectation for the triumphant jock to make sense with words what he or she just achieved with their body after most professional games when sideline correspondents shove microphones in their faces before the first piece of confetti lands. Why do “we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection”?
When athletes speak to the media in clichés I’ve assumed they are fulfilling an obligation to talk to the press without actually saying anything at all, which protects their personal boundaries and avoids controversy. Wallace, however, considers that “for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not, and if useful to be invoked and obeyed and that’s all there is to it.”
Conversely, the analytical mind is a detriment, an inhibiting characteristic that gets in the way of athletic performance. As Wallace’s teenage peers grew into taller, hairier, more talented tennis players, he began losing confidence. One coach even told him he had, “a bad head,” because he thought too much during matches.
You don’t need me to tell you sports metaphors are some of the most strained comparisons thrown around in platitudes of everyday conversation and published in more developed language by too many sports reporters. The worst sports comparisons are to war where people lose limbs and brain function and life versus games where the outcomes shift emotion, but Wallace suggests a reason for their ubiquity. Men resort to “war codes” because they are “safer” and therefore they are more comfortable professing their “‘love’ of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war.” This reader could do without them altogether. Wallace occasionally slips into them, for example when he compares the flight of tennis balls to “artillery and airstrikes.”
It’s fair to call David Foster Wallace one of the greatest tennis writers, but in less hagiographic terms, we should consider him a gifted translator “between doing and being,” the rare combination of an experienced player and a talented author who communicates “the gift we are denied.”
James M. Chesbro’s debut collection, A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, will be published by Woodhall Press next month.