Book Club: The Authoritative Pang

by: Steve Tignor | September 30, 2009

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The Book Club is flying solo this week. That’s because charter (and only other) member Kamakshi Tandon is kind of busy with something called law school. Nevertheless, it seemed like the right time to take stock of the small but influential collected tennis works of author and essayist David Foster Wallace, who died a year ago this month.

The bulk of the tennis-writing career of David Foster Wallace, the observations that made him famous as a chronicler of the sport, took place over the course of just one month, from early August to the Labor Day weekend of 1995. In that time he attended tournaments in Montreal and Flushing Meadows and came back with two articles: “The String Theory” for Esquire, and “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open” for Tennis Magazine.

To say these were tennis articles like any other is like kind of like saying a whale is just another fish in the sea. Wallace brought a new, hyper-detailed, all-seeing eye and let-it-rip attitude to the analysis of the sport. Part of this was his writing skill and the importance of the game to his life, but part of it was also his outsider’s viewpoint. Despite having grown up on a tennis court, Wallace had never attended a pro tournament before he went to Montreal that year; and when he got to the Open, he couldn’t hide his sense of awe at the sheer size of the thing. A regular tennis journalist could never have written from that perspective, and Wallace would have been hard-pressed to duplicate it himself. Maybe that’s why these would be his last comments of significance on the sport for more than 10 years.

“The String Theory” is at its core a profile of Michael Joyce, a “journeyman” pro at the time and the current coach of Maria Sharapova. The bland magazine headline doesn’t give you much sense of the article’s wide-ranging concerns, which must be why Wallace, in his first essay collection, gave it a slightly more comprehensive title: “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.” That still doesn’t cover everything discussed, but whatever its name, the piece ranks among the very best ever written about the sport.

The concept is basic: Wallace travels to the 1995 Rogers Cup, hangs out with Joyce, and writes about everything he sees and hears and thinks. It’s not a small amount of stuff: In his book of essays, the story runs for 42 pages and includes 64 “footnotes,” which range from brief tangents to some of the most thoughtful analysis in the piece. His tone is markedly different from what it was four years earlier in “Tennis, Trig, and Tornadoes.” Here Wallace scraps the difficult verbal density of that story and takes on a regular-guy persona as he strolls the grounds. He uses his massive footnotes as conversational asides—NY Times writer A.O. Scott called Wallace’s writing “the voice inside your head," because it was always speeding forward recklessly even as it was second-guessing itself. Nowhere is that more true than in “String Theory” and “Democracy and Commerce.” The articles were written the same year that Infinite Jest was published; his immersion in tennis almost seems to come as a relief, and his writing is better for it. I’ll stick to the Joyce piece here, because the two are similar and this is the more successful of them, but both are must-reads. No other writing has done justice to the teeming, vulgar grandeur of a professional tennis event, while at the same time giving the average reader an idea of the effort it takes to play in one. Below are some of the best lines and riffs.

—It begins, “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 . . .” Some writers might be happy to end this sentence here, with that nicely turned last phrase. Not Wallace. After a comma, he continues by immediately diving into his trademark geeky detail: “. . . but he’s not really smiling—his face’s circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the ball at the top of the toss’s rise.

—Joyce’s first-round match in the qualies: Stade Jarry’s Stadium Court facility can hold slightly over 10,000 soulds. Right now, for Michael Joyce’s qualifying match, there are 93 people in the crowd, 91 of whom appear to friends and relatives of [Joyce’s Canadian opponent] Dan Brakus.

The acoustics in the near-empty Stadium are amazing—you can hear every breath, every sneaker’s squeak, the authoritative pang of the ball against very tight strings.

—Footnote 6, about the girlfriends of marginal pros: 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.

—The realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin.

Footnote 26, on the Wilson T2000: Jimmy Connors’ game was all the stranger because the racquet he generated all his firepower from the baseline with was a Wilson T2000, a weird steel thing that’s one of the single shittiest tennis racquets ever made and is regarded by most serious players as useful only for home defense or prying large rocks out of your backyard or something.

I mentioned that Wallace likes to assign a villain in his stories. In this one and in the piece about the U.S. Open, that villain is Andre Agassi. Wallace detested him, seemingly on aesthetic grounds, though I’m not exactly sure why. Wallace will also detest Mark Philippoussis, who he describes as “malevolent and cyborgian” at the 1995 U.S. Open, and Rafael Nadal for similar reasons. None of these guys measured up to his idea of what a beautiful tennis player should look like, or how he should play. But Wallace takes it a step farther and makes the vilification personal, as if they represent a despicable worldview and approach to life.

—Footnote 21: Sampras is surprisingly childlike and cute on the court, in contrast to Agassi, who’s about as cute as a Port Authority whore.

—Footnote 31: Watch Agassi closely sometime—for so small a man and so great a player, he’s amazingly devoid of finesse, with movements that look more like a Heavy Metal musicians than an athlete’s.

Like I said yesterday, this feels like something from a screenplay rather than a description of reality, and reminds me of the “nonfiction” of Tom Wolfe. Reading his stories about Chuck Yeager, the pilot, and Junior Johnson, the stock-car racer, you begin to wonder at some point whether they’re the same person—Wolfe bends their personalities to fit his idea of a hero. Wallace seemed to need to see tennis as a metaphor for good and evil, right and wrong, cool and uncool. I find this suprising coming from someone who actually played tennis, though maybe I shouldn’t. Wallace was a self-proclaimed grinder, and he tends to glorify the players—Sampras, Federer—who don’t play that way.

—Footnote 49, on Mark Knowles: “From a distance he’s an impressive looking guy, though up close he has a kind of squished, buggy face and the slightly bulging eyes of a player who, I can tell, is spring-loaded for a tantrum.”

—Footnote 61, on Thomas Enqvist: “Enqvist, by the way, looks eerily like a young Richard Chamberlain, with his narrow, rodentially patrician quality. The best thing about Enqvist is his girlfriend, who wears glasses and when she applauds a good point sort of hops up and down in her seat with a refreshing uncoolness.”

—After speculating that Joyce might be a virgin, he concludes with these words about him: “Michael Joyce will remain a figure of enduring and paradoxical fascination for me. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque. But the 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 part 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, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure. Michael Joyce, in other words, is a complete man. But he wants more . . . At 22, it’s already too late for anything else; he’s invested too much, is in too deep. He will say he’s happy and mean it. Wish him well.”

Whatever else Wallace did as a writer, his penetration into what it takes and means to be a struggling professional tennis player was a lasting contribution to the sportswriting craft. It remains, and will likely always remain, the last word on the subject. Am I jealous? I thought I might be when I started to reread it. By the end, I was just grateful.


Tomorrow we conclude with DFW’s most famous tennis article, in which God appears in a Nike headband.

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