WITH WIMBLEDON, that most venerated of competitions now in full swing at London’s All-England Club, those with a love for literature as well as tennis can feast on a compilation that combines some of the most magnificent writing on the subject from one of the greatest writers of his generation. String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis by David Foster Wallace is important enough that the Library of America recently published it as a special edition, which in physical form looks and feels like a classic textbook – appropriate, as there’s so much to learn within its pages.
David Foster Wallace (who left us far too early, at the age of 46 in 2008) was best known for his novel, Infinite Jest, which sparked an uproar when it failed to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1996. It was a tour-de-force opus (1,100 pages long) that cemented his reputation as a fresh and consummately creative voice in the literary stratosphere.
Infinite Jest, not surprisingly, involved tennis amongst its several themes. Since his days as a junior player in the heart of the Midwest, Wallace’s relationship with the sport was deep and all-involving, and led to some of the most insightful essays ever produced on the topic, with the New York Times ultimately calling him “The greatest tennis writer ever.”
For Wallace, tennis was somewhat akin to a trigonometric puzzle that he spent his whole life trying to figure out. “I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding,” he writes. Both the physics and geometry of what takes place within the 78’x27’ confines of a tennis court long consumed his astonishingly analytical eye. Consider the following, from “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” describing his early years in the junior leagues:
“We were doing butterfly drills – my crosscourt forehand is transferred back down the line to [his] backhand, he crosscourts it to my backhand, I send it down the line to his forehand, four 45° angles, though the intersection of just his crosscourts make an X, which is four 90°s and also a crucifix rotated the same quarter-turn that a swastika (which involves eight 90° angles) is rotated on Hitlerian bunting. This was the sort of stuff that went through my head when I drilled.”
Whew. Definitely not the “sort of stuff” that would cross the mind of the average weekend player. In an excellent foreword, writer John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that tennis “draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games…[and] the perfect game for Wallace.” That obsessive quality is very much on display here, and Wallace’s dissections of what would be considered minutiae by a casual observer are turned into stream-of-consciousness discourses of razor-sharp perception. Brilliant throwaway lines like “he rushes the net like it owes him money” are peppered throughout. (This extends, also, to the book’s voluminous footnotes, a technique that Wallace was known for ubiquitously employing in his fiction as well; I found it best to read those after finishing with the main text.)
Wallace’s exalted views about the essence of the sport – “There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man” – were sometimes challenged, and his disappointment is nowhere more keenly expressed than in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” In the piece written about the tennis prodigy’s autobiography released in 1992, Austin, who won the U.S. Open at the tender age of 16, and whom Wallace had placed on a pedestal, came quickly back down to earth as he realized that, “Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.”
In wickedly incisive form, he writes that “This is for me, the real mystery – whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir.” Elsewhere, he describes the brash and grungy Andres Agassi — “whom I loathe with a passion” – as “amazingly devoid of finesse, with movements that look more like a Heavy Metal musician’s than an athlete’s.” Ouch!
But there was a certain icon about whom Wallace harbored no qualms. In an essay that has since reached near mythic proportions and was originally published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times in 2006, Wallace’s sublime observations reached a zenith of perfection. Reprinted here as “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” it’s a must-read for even those with just a passing interest in tennis, a heady amalgamation of both intellectual pyrotechnics and plain fan-boy praise from a clearly besotted Wallace:
“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”
Even more to the point is Wallace’s uncanny analysis of what constituted the maestro’s greatness:
There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.
Could he have imagined that here we would be, a decade later, with Federer playing at his 17th Wimbledon, after already winning seven titles there? One is struck by a simple phrase that Wallace used to describe his idol, but which can be just as much said about his chronicler: “Genius is not replicable.”