String Theory: On Tennis
By David Foster Wallace
Library of America
138 pages. $19.99
By Margaret Sullivan
I had never read David Foster Wallace before picking up the July 1996 edition of Esquire magazine, but as a longtime tennis fan, I was drawn to his profile of Michael Joyce – a professional tennis player whose name was unknown, though he ranked 79th in the world.
By the fifth sentence, Wallace had my attention, as he described Joyce’s serve during the 1995 Canadian Open: “The tossed ball rises and seems for a second to hang, waiting, cooperating, as balls always seem to do for great players.”
A perfect sentence and an astute observation, it reminded me of reading Tom Wolfe for the first time – not because the style was at all similar but because the writer’s voice was so original.
Soon I was hooked, partly by Wallace’s love of footnotes – something I had never seen in a popular-magazine article before. In the Michael Joyce story, for example, Wallace first sketches the players’ female companions on the tour: “sloppily beautiful European girls with sandals and patched jeans and leather backpacks, girlfriends who set up cloth lawn chairs and sun themselves next to their players’ practice courts.” Then, the tiny numeral 6 appears, leading the eye to equally tiny type below: “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.”
Who was this guy? Well, many things, as it turned out: a lionized novelist, whose “Infinite Jest” (published a few months earlier in ’96) is a postmodern tour de force; a hell of a reporter, who could go on a luxury ocean cruise and transform the experience into great nonfiction in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”; and, terrible to recall, a man whose talent was no match for his decades-long struggle with depression. In 2008, at age 46, he hanged himself at home from a patio rafter.
Long before any of that, Wallace was a tennis player himself. As a teenager, he had a successful run on the regional junior circuit in Illinois. He did well, but the real sparks flew years later when Wallace turned his verbal and intellectual powers to this lifelong interest. (A passion, really, since he has called tennis “the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding.”)
So, rejoice at the appearance of this appealing volume, even if it is no bigger than a blank journal from Hallmark. Between its grass-green covers, five of Wallace’s erudite and engaging tennis essays are collected and, together with a pitch-perfect introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan, the result is nothing short of delightful, like a ball streaking off a racquet’s sweet spot for a winner.
The best known is Wallace’s 2006 celebration of Roger Federer, first published in the New York Times Magazine on Aug. 20, 2006, with the title, “Federer As Religious Experience.”
“A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice – the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace, and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like, all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game – as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or – as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject – to try to define it in terms of what it is not.”
And so, too, Wallace’s tennis writing. What is it not? It is not imitative. It certainly is not predictable. We get phrases like “great liquid whip,” and “eel-like, all-body snap,” but we also get St. Thomas Aquinas (whose own elusive subject, of course, was religious faith).
Sullivan’s introduction praises Wallace’s description of a 16-shot point between Federer and archrival Rafael Nadal, which “reads as dramatically as a battle scene.” He quotes Wallace as Federer wins the point, “with some kind of demented spin that causes the ball to slip over the net and vanish.” Sullivan observes: “Wallace is able not only to give us the moment, but to let us see the strategic and geometric intelligence that went into setting it up.”
A serious student of mathematics and philosophy, Wallace brings all of this to his tennis writing. And plenty of humor, too.
In his essay “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” the author revisits his own moment as a “near-great junior tennis player.” That glory was fleeting – only while Wallace was between the ages of 12 and 14, and when the ever-present Midwestern wind was blowing especially hard. “I was at my best,” he wrote, “in very bad conditions.” Mocking himself as a “shallow-chested pusher,” he uses Martin Amis’ great phrase to describe his defensive, scrambling style of play: “craven retrieval.”
And there’s more: A devastating review of Tracy Austin’s “breathtakingly insipid” autobiography, and a reported takeout on the U.S. Open’s commercial excesses, the latter bursting with the aforementioned footnotes.
All told, this collection is a tennis classic that deserves shelf space next to John McPhee’s “Levels of the Game,” and Brad Gilbert’s “Winning Ugly.”
Its publication could be seen as a rare gift from the tennis gods: those fickle deities who should avenge your opponent’s outrageous line call with a blaze of sun in her eyes on the next serve – but often neglect to do so.
But then again, “String Theory” may seem so divine for a more down-to-earth reason: David Foster Wallace is a great talent, writing on a subject he knows and loves. And that makes this little book, quite simply, an ace.
Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of The Buffalo News and the former public editor of the New York Times. She is now a media columnist for the Washington Post. She is a lifelong devotee of tennis.