Tennis in the Air

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1a Last week’s New Yorker—or this week’s New Yorker, or the one from two weeks ago, I can never keep it straight they show up so fast—included a long, ambitious, yet very readable article by the novelist (and tennis fan) Jonathan Franzen. It was about a lot of things at once: individualism, technology, the early history of the novel and the reasons for its popularity, and his late friend David Foster Wallace.

I liked most, though not quite all, of Franzen’s novel, The Corrections. I liked his book of essays more, though reading it on the subway was a little embarrassing—it’s called How to Be Alone. He’s very much alone in this piece as well. After a year spent publicizing his last novel, Freedom, Franzen has the bright idea to go live on a deserted island, read Robinson Crusoe, and allow himself to grieve for the first time for his friend and fellow writer. Wallace’s wife gives him some of her late husband’s ashes to scatter over the island. It doesn’t take long before Franzen finds himself desperate to be back on his couch, drinking a beer, and watching a football game.

The article has gotten some buzz because Franzen is willing to punch a few holes in Wallace’s sainted reputation. He believes that his suicide, while driven by his illness, was also calculated to hurt his wife and friends as deeply as possible, and at the same time raise himself to the status of legend with his readers. The piece is worth reading just for the honesty of these sections. (I also confess to being ready to hear something less-than-saintly about the Le Grand DFW at this point.) Also interesting to me was Franzen’s progression away from Crusoe and its “radical individualism” at the start of the essay and toward another early book that he takes on the trip, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, a favorite of mine that I also discovered late. Franzen ties that shift in his reading to Wallace in a brilliantly complex way that it’s beyond my powers to summarize here (it’s worth a read, I’ll leave it at that).

But what resonated most to me was an aside that Franzen threw out in his section on the history of the novel. He talks about the work of a critic named Catherine Gallagher:

The 18th century was not only the moment when fiction writers abandoned the pretense that their narratives weren’t fictional; it was also the moment when they began taking pains to make their narratives seem not fictional—when verisimilitude became paramount. Gallagher’s resolution of the paradox hinges on yet another aspect of modernity, the necessity of taking risks. When business came to depend on investment, you had to weigh various possible future outcomes; when marriages ceased to be arranged, you had to speculate on the merits of potential mates. The novel, as it was developed in the 18th century, provided its readers with a field of play that was speculative and risk free. While advertising its fictionality, it gave you protagonists who were typical enough to be experienced as possible versions of yourself and yet specific enough to remain, simultaneously, not you.

Reminds you of something, right? You can substitute the word “tennis players” for “protagonists” in that sentence and have a pretty fair description, with the rest of the paragraph, of the appeal of tennis specifically and sports in general. We get to watch other people take the risk, make that crucial judgment between boldness and conservatism. Sports, if only artificially and vicariously, let us know what a moment that counts feels like.

***

As with baseball, the NBA goes from excruciatingly dull during the regular season to extremely exciting once the play-offs come around; it’s a total switch-up. There are always complaints about the length of the Association’s post-season, and it does get a little wearisome when the last two teams are staggering up and down the court in the middle of June. But if you’re going to shorten anything, it should be the regular season. It should be all playoffs in my opinion, just like baseball should be 16 games rather than 162. Can you imagine how exciting each game would be?

Last night I got to watch some of Joakim Noah for the first time this year. Basketball fans, do you hate the son of Yannick? The designated “hustle guy” for the Chicago Bulls, the top seeds in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, Noah is exceptionally easy to despise. He’s always scrapping, always ripping the ball away, always fist-pumping and screaming and sweating, always around—I can’t think of many players with his moderate talents who have had such a big presence on a court. Even his own fellow Bulls detested him at first, but in the end he’s the kind of guy who love to have on your team. Those who hate him now wouldn’t mind his hustle if he brought it to their arena. (Is his scrappiness a product of his tennis background? When I think of NBA stars who I could see playing tennis, I think of Kobe Bryant. Upper-middle-class, self-centered, ornery, blessed with amazing body control—perfect for our sport).

Thinking of Noah reminded me of doubles teams, and how much fun it is to “play with the enemy,” to take someone who had long been a foe and get on the same side of the net with him. There’s a subversive appeal to it; you’ve put aside differences, expanded your circle of friends, pledged yourself to the higher good of the game.

In high school, there was a player for a rival team that we all hated—I’ll call him Keith—who was crafty with the racquet but much craftier with his line calls—he was a bald-faced cheater, in other words, and there was nothing we could do about it. Keith didn’t have the skills to win in singles, but he was extremely hard to beat in doubles.

One summer we were both at a 16-and-under tournament looking for doubles partners, so we put our names in as a team. It was borderline sacrilege, but also kind of a thrill. Maybe I was being paranoid, or secretly hopeful, but people really did seem to be shocked by the high school rivals pairing up. What was the world coming to?

We did well, and I didn’t notice any cheating on Keith’s part through the early rounds; he didn’t need to. I also earned a measure of respect for his intelligence as a player. He did the most with what he had, and was an extremely opportunistic and confident competitor. We reached the final and, naturally, played the top doubles team from his school. We had a break point near the end of a close first set. Our opponents closed for an easy volley but hit it dangerously close to the baseline. Keith, in a movement of sinister swiftness that I’ll never forget, moved in front of the ball so that he was blocking it from our opponents—his own classmates—and confidently shouted "out!" just as it touched down a full five inches inside the line. We’d broken. Keith picked up the balls, and before our opponents could say anything, got set up to serve.

What would have been the honorable thing for me to do? I guess it would have been to admit my partner’s wrongdoing and give them the point. I didn’t do that. I’d chosen to play with Keith, and deep down, I hate to say it, but I kind of liked his style. We won, but I can’t remember if I felt guilty when we got the trophy or not. Something tells me I didn’t.

***

By now, as April winds down and the temperature in New York starts to rise a bit, I can start to feel tennis in the air. My club opens in early May. What do I think about first when I think about getting out there again? I think not about hitting a ball but about walking around on a court between points. After a winter of playing at close quarters on a squash court, a tennis court feels like a vast space in which to roam, or walk, with your thoughts—walking has a purpose, but it isn’t rushed, either; you’re not idle, but you’re also not working. It's the perfect way to be alone—no wonder Jonathan Franzen likes tennis.

What am I anticipating the most? An afternoon, an empty set of courts, and a mishit ball that lands 50 feet away. I’m looking forward to making the long, unhurried walk to go pick it up.

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