In line at a local hot dog dive in my hometown of Raleigh, NC, I’d calculated that we had about half an hour left for lunch, maybe forty minutes, depending on who drove. I stood behind my friends in line, my legs absentmindedly crossed beneath me, knee bent flamingo-fashion, leaning on the railing as Mr. Peanut leans on his cane. An older man stood behind me, acting no differently than the usual crowd, until he peace-shatteringly proclaimed that I must be a tennis player. It’s in your calves, he said, most certainly. I’d spot those calves anywhere, he said, and smiled casually as if he had just commented on the weather, and not the defined lower legs of a high school boy. Whether it was really the calves or the reflective neon Nikes (Federer Zoom Vapor 9 Tours, at that point very new and cool among tennis players), I’ll never know, but he supposed correctly.
But there’s no doubt that this is true: a trained eye can spot a tennis player from four courts away. Clay formicating up their ankles, one hand blistered, a scoliotic hunch, any kind of Babolat brand accessory, one swollen forearm, a smugly up-tilted chin, etc. The more serious ones can be seen picking up pinecones in their yard between rake and outer foot, swinging pencils like miniature racquets in class, rubbing their own neon-sign-red necks, as elastic as an owl’s from years of spectating the back-and-forth rhythms of matches, and may or may not have a small candle-lit shrine in their basement dedicated to Andy Roddick’s serve (only his serve)—all of the above are dead giveaways, hobo signs for a fellow devotee.
Of course, it’s difficult to say anything about the nuance and majesty of tennis when one of the greatest recent literary minds seems to have already squeezed the topic for every drop it’s worth: David Foster Wallace. It would be criminal not to whatever-is-more-than mention him in any article on tennis, especially one that concerns its literary life, and extra especially in an article as horizon-scrunching as this. For goodness sakes, the New York Times gave him a non-qualified decree as the “best tennis-writer of all time.” It’s not new to write about tennis, it’s not new to write about DFW writing about tennis, and it’s not even new to write about how much writers have written about DFW writing about tennis—so on into the fractal. But this year String Theory (2016) was released, a collection of DFW’s nonfiction writing on tennis, published by Penguin Random House in an arrangement with Little, Brown and Company, Wallace’s legal publisher. It’s all things tennis (nonfiction, that is) assorted into a neat little green hardback. In six essays, covering the inhuman ability of Roger Federer, reviewing Tracy Austin’s incredibly bland autobiography, and reliving his own career as a “near-great” junior tennis player, DFW seems to cast his shadow over the whole sport.
When String Theory was published, I snagged myself a copy as soon as I could. At the time, tennis meant almost exactly what it means to me now—a game, a beautiful game, and as you’ll soon see, a sentimental one for me. Although I was at first eager to accept this great writer’s conception of the game, the flipbook image that Wallace is able to produce only made me eager to reminisce, to see what I could manage to mine from the sport, and to put the two experiences under the microscope, side by side.
But first, there are a few things about reading Wallace’s pieces in succession that are off-putting. Let me present to you a couple well-chosen quotes and you tell me what your reaction is: “I won a lot.” (p. 11), “I am about the same age and played competitive tennis in the same junior ranks as Tracy Austin…” (p. 27) “I still play—not competitively, but seriously—and I should confess that deep down somewhere I still consider myself an extremely good tennis player, real hard to beat.” (p. 74). Et cetera. At least that last one characterizes itself as an admission. The pieces were originally published in places like Esquire, Harper’s, and The New York Times’ short-lived sports-focused magazine, PLAY. So reading them in order gives an impression that, after the first few essays, with each new title we arrive back at the beginning of a loop. Every time we turn the page to a new essay, DFW has to reprove his credibility as a tennis player and even as a tennis writer. But surely—as redundant as it is—it is a necessary hurdle for the compilation, a very conspicuous example of the relatively small stylistic hiccups that arise from compiling these essays.
Elsewhere in the book, in a review/essay of once-great Tracy Austin’s autobiography, DFW begins with a comic onslaught of mind-bogglingly bland sentences that riddle the book (“I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled”). He also lays out a theme that he revisits in his Kenyon commencement speech “This Is Water,” namely that platitude, cliché, and truisms are all generally written off as such, but when given genuine consideration, can become truly profound. This is where he ends the essay, outlining the genre of ultra-athlete-memoir, ultimately praising virtuoso competitors’ ability to take cliché to heart. In taking this one-eighty he comes dangerously close to a we’re-all-good-at-something type defense, noting that we wouldn’t be the least bit surprised by “Eliot’s inability to hit the curve.”
DFW’s tendency to unearth meaning (or invent it) through rigorous description is brought with the same intensity to his childhood game of tennis, though there is something a little less rigorous about this collection, something more tender, appreciative, doting. As a once-competitive tennis player myself, this nostalgia and I are well-acquainted. DFW’s selective overview of the sport feels perhaps necessarily mine, as do the nostalgia, the relation, the jealousy, and all the little untaxed feelings that swim alongside. The feeling of thrill in a third set tiebreak, the “unfairness of it all,” the pressure of ball on string—all these sensations are evoked and indeed seem to become the very literary incarnation of the game itself, each sentence tugging at my shirtsleeve. Though this stirs something nostalgic in me, there are spots left untouched, scenes from my own memory that encroach on the frame, bits and pieces of what it means, if anything, for someone to play a game as meaningless as tennis.
My mom is an avid tennis player (I’m sure she’d like to be listed here as once a 4.5 USTA-level player). She had a twenty-two-inch racquet in my hand as soon as I could walk and has had me crisscrossing over tennis courts throughout North Carolina ever since. I started playing tennis at the nearby tennis club when I was young, attending clinics, playing with friends. It must have been immediately clear that I had a temper. The whims of winds, the line-calls of opponents, the ineffable off-ness of my serve would wind me up into a tight coil that at some point in the second set would unspring violently. I was one of the kids that David Foster Wallace infuriates in his recounting of his junior tennis career in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” who would start “expecting to get screwed over” by the “wind, net, tape [my personal devil].” “Schizophrenic gales,” he calls them, though I can only imagine how much more powerful and less predictable they are in the Midwest. In one match, later in my ‘career’ but before I had learned to control my rage, I smashed three racquets in one high school tennis match. This is something Wallace remembers other players doing, but always as opposed to him–stoic, unaffected. Which infuriates me. I’m the one who’s red-faced with jealousy when I finish a chapter of Wallace’s, I’m the one across the net stomping his feet while he remains perfectly cool behind the baseline, behind the page (or so he would be so eager to have himself appear).
At that point, when the third racquet was cracked, I hit a wall, like some players are said to do, and from that point onward I never let so much a double fault get my panties in a wad. That was my sophomore year of high school. Tennis was just a game again. Afterwards, ping pong was the only competition that would stir the faintest hint of rose in my cheeks. But before casual tennis became the main outlet for my athletic expression, there was competitive tennis—USTA tournaments, rankings, training. The tennis club sponsored a high-level, high-intensity clinic for generally high-ranking state players, colloquially referred to as ‘Academy.’ Most of the players at Academy were good, some were great, often holding spots in the state’s top ten. U-16’s were probably when I was most into the idea. I would go to Academy after school, we would run, we would hit, we would play challenge matches. Soon there was something becoming increasingly uniform about Academy players to me, about competitive players in general: they (we) were arrogant. Their ranking might as well be branded on their forehead, their relationship with the coaches a sign of their belonging, their ability to slack off during conditioning a display of its worthlessness to them. Plus, there is a social circle around the competition. Were you at Southerns? Why did she stop taking lessons from George? But as quickly as the competition and training and hormone flux waxed, it waned. Once-hyper-competitive homeschoolers were dropping Academy and rejoining the real world, tired of the daily grind. I myself would classify myself as a subsect of the mass-emigration; while I never abandoned the sport, I only saw it differently, less competitively, more as a beautiful display of human ability, more as a something I was thankful for.
Speaking of seeing things differently, there’s a loose strand of a side story that weaves its way through my relationship with tennis. The theme: nearsightedness. I had refused to acknowledge for years that there was anything wrong with my vision, even though coaches hyperbolized that I should read PENN TOUR 2 on the ball, no matter the RPM. They said you need to see to play tennis. I said I had perfect depth perception (I don’t), and I could see a fist-sized yellow ball just fine, thank you very much. It was well after my competitive years that I submitted to wearing contacts. My dad told me he remembers when he finally got glasses as a child that the branches and leaves on the trees distinguished themselves for the first time, that they carved themselves out of big green blobs. I believed that what I saw was the sharpest picture of the world, too, but by the time my stubbornness gave in, my myopia had intensified to 20/100.
My parabolic interest in tennis was closely connected to my membership on the high school varsity tennis team. Following the ebb and flow of my competitiveness were my coaches, two of them. First was the coach who led us to a State Championship and a State Runners-up, a fiery, masochistically competitive type. His coaching style was to have you invest so much into the season that you had no choice but to keep investing. We did sprints, we ran hills, we practiced overtime. We were a really good team, a really tight team. After that coach, a new coach came in when I was a sophomore, an old man with a dinky oversized racquet whose voice sounded like a bucket of rusty nails being dumped into a larger pile of rusty nails. He drove a Mustang and used to be a court bailiff. We called him by only his last name, Terrell. Soon, I was an older player on the team, so, since almost nobody could understand what he was saying, I had to do most of the interactions and translate them from Terrell into English for the team. Once you could speak Terrell, you knew how hilarious and lovable he was. After every sentence, he would let out that rusty laugh, cracking himself up. Everything he said was a punchline. One time a teammate shanked a serve that hit him directly in his face, hard, knocking off his sunglasses (that he always wore) and he immediately replied, “Y’all ever seen anybody get shot?” He played college tennis at Wake Forest however many years ago (the classic joke is that he himself perpetuates is that it was before the Great Depression), and for every college I was applying to, he had a story about some old guy who used to play for them, a #1 doubles deuce-man for Duke, had a wicked lefty serve, jumped off the Golden Gate few years later, or a steady guy for UVA, nice guy, never did anything of note. He had the same advice for every player: a) get your racquet back, and b) turn sideways. Both useful. Terrell was also instrumental in breaking me down on the nearsightedness question. It was under the reign of King Terrell that I first wore contacts lenses on the court, not without resentment. It was also during Terrell’s tenure that I threw three racquets’-worth of a temper tantrum and subsequently never spat so much as a syllable of slander against an opponent ever again, no matter how much of a Pusher they were (Pusher, n.: (1) an infuriatingly consistent player who sits on the baseline and lobs, lobs, lobs, all day, all day baby (2) the bane of my tennis-playing existence).
We loved Terrell, we loved eating Bojangles after away-losses with him, we loved wondering what he was saying when we prayed before matches, we loved folkloric stories about the Mustang he used to own, we loved playing tennis. We weren’t the Division 2 North Carolina High School Tennis juggernaut we used to be, but we were OK with it.
In the transition between these two coaches, I followed a steady arc in my outlook on tennis’s place in my life. Not a rise and fall in a strictly vertical sense, but more of a shift, maybe on the Z-axis, or whatever axis the fifth dimension is on. I was less incensed, but it didn’t matter; I wasn’t as good, but maybe I enjoyed it more. There was a lot of sacrificing this for that, priority A for priority B, a rearrangement not at all unique to my adolescence.
It’s hard to recognize that you’re not good at something you want to be good at. You know that thing you want to be good at? Yeah, you’re not good at it. And all those hours you spent to be good at it? Forget about them. Go find something else to try to be good at.
Sever that part of your identity off and watch it squirm on the ground.
In other words, it was hard for me to burst the bubble that had been forming. The longer I played tennis, the more I became “a tennis player.” The bubble grew. The more I labeled myself “a tennis player,” the more difficult it became to divest, to pop the bubble.
My mom played at a small college—so did her brother—and for a while, that was also my dream. But since I relegated my status to Social Player, the three of us have spent some of the more enjoyable hours of my summers batting around a fuzzy ball, telling stories, discussing the price of peaches. All I ever had was opportunity, no pressure, so that when the time came, stepping away from tennis was as easy as stepping into it. It remained there, not out of my reach, like a tool strapped to my hip, but its function had changed. I was doubly privileged: I was lucky enough to have tennis offered to me, and I was lucky enough to choose to abandon it.
Many historians believe tennis first reared its sweaty little bandana’d head in the monastic cloisters of Northern France around the start of the first millennium AD. Then, by the moniker Jeu de Paume, for the use of palms where we now use racquets, tennis was conceived and christened with a name about as obvious as basketball’s. Capital T Tennis, with racquets and all, had its genesis sometime in the sixteenth century and quickly spread to England where King Henry XIII of England was an avid fan—always a good endorsement. Etymologically, the word “Tennis” came from Old French (earlier, no doubt, from the Latin tenere) to Anglo-Norman as tennis, then meaning something nearer its Latin root: to receive, to hold, to take. It was adapted to Tenez by Italian voyeurs who thought the French were shouting the name of the game before they tossed and served (imagine twenty-two men shouting “football!” with a little fist pump before kickoff). It was still played indoors where walls were fair play, like the freak cousin of Squash. In his introduction to String Theory, the collected essays of David Foster Wallace on Tennis, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that “we preserve this custom of warning the opponent in our less lyrical way by stating the score just before we toss up the ball.” In modern history, International Tennis soon became the primary platform of competition; there was the Davis Cup founded in 1900—men’s national competition—and the ITF (International Tennis Federation) founded in the early 20th century, a semi-centennial Federation Cup being held in 1963. A little over 50 years ago, as regulations began to crumble and professional/amateur divisions began to fade, the Open Era began, in which any player (for example, Rafael Nadal, winning the 2006 French Open at age 19, his 19th birthday on the very same day he beat #1 seeded Roger Federer in the Semifinals) could compete to qualify for any competition, and professionals could win major bread by playing tennis.
Henry XIII was playing a game of tennis when news of his second wife’s execution arrived. In 1437, the sport indirectly led to the death of King James I of Scotland when a route near his tennis court through which he planned to escape assassination was blocked to prevent losing tennis balls through the passage. Then there was, of course, the famous Tennis Court Oath of the French Revolution, which I hardly need mention. Tennis is even used by Shakespeare in Henry V, symbolically, depicting a basket of tennis balls sent to the King as a mockery of his childish playfulness. Tennis’s aristocratic, even political heritage is plain, as even today it carries the connotation of a sport for the upper class, white, and privileged. A ‘country club sport.’ The same inequality is in effect on a larger scale, as Wallace points out in “Democracy and Commerce at the US Open.” He writes, “Professional tennis always gets called an international sport, but it would be more accurate to call it a multinational sport: fiscally speaking, it exists largely as a marketing subdivision of very large corporations, and not merely of the huge Tour-underwriting conglomerates like IBM and Virginia Slims.” He likes to note how everything is sponsored, how players’ primary revenue often comes from endorsements, reminiscent of his fictional employment of the Whataburger Tournament and subsidized time–constructions from his fiction. But even on an individual level, is it any surprise that most top players come from France, Switzerland, Spain, etc., and not just for reasons of geography? Or that there has only recently been a conspicuous absence of US men from the most competitive level of professional tennis?
On the contrary, it’s no surprise that the rise of the Williams sisters, following as the latest successors to the relatively early progression of women’s rights in America (though not especially early in suffrage), granting something of a ‘head start’ (see U.S.A. Women’s Soccer, 2014 World Cup)—it’s no surprise that Serena and Venus Williams are at the forefront of a relatively more diverse generation of US tennis players. This generation particularly includes African-Americans, with the incipient Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. Four African-American women represented the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics (contrast with the mostly white men’s team, further explored in “American Tennis in Black and White” by Gerald Marzorati in The New Yorker)—and it should be mentioned that the Williams sisters boast a combined five gold medals from the past five Olympics. Tennis is still considered a sport of privilege for the upper class, but can be played on public courts, where the Williams sisters learned growing up in Compton; a second- or third-hand racquet can be found for as cheap as a basketball; dead-enough-to-sink tennis balls can be scavenged from just about any roadside ditch, dumpster, or doghouse. So, even though the aristocratic roots of tennis have long-since perished, why does it remain a sport for the rich?
It isn’t about putting every kid on every block corner of every project in every major city in America into a white polo and making him drill, it’s just a matter of opportunity. As has been mentioned, public courts are particularly important to what should be the democratization of tennis. While many tennis courts are imagined as grass-surfaced, wreathed in shrubbery, well-kept by people in white clothes, played on poorly by old white men who are really only there to sell each other something and pay however much for club membership—in reality most courts are free to use. Sure, these courts are probably cracked hard-surface, potted with tufts of grass and fenced by Tetanus-y chain-link, but they’re not owned by country clubs, rather by City Parks and Rec., the taxpayers, the people.
This is where the chronicles of tennis arrive at my doorstep, the welcome-matted doorstep of a well-to-do white kid born in the urban American South. First, it’s necessary to point out that tennis is nothing but a set of rules—not racquets, not Maria Sharapova, not even the words ‘forehand,’ ‘backhand,’ ‘serve,’ or ‘volley’—just a(n at-times complicated) set of rules. The sport itself is an idea put into practice, much like a religion in that more basic, less obvious sense. And so as those rules evolved into the state they exist today, they picked up this history, this socioeconomic connotation, even some political baggage. Not a bit of this is apparent in these rules, in this idea of a game, in the person across the net from me. As I played this game, I never once thought about the middle-schoolers who didn’t have tennis practice after school, the masses of kids who would never pick up a tennis racquet. But you can’t blame me—it’s impossible to see what isn’t there. Sometime during the three summers I spent breadwinning for teaching (mostly white) children to whiff serves I realized the same thing: these kids are learning a game that some of them may one day love—not necessarily because their parents care more than other kids, but because they can afford it.
Slowly but surely tennis is changing, or at least its perception is. Even as the very composition of old society is changing form, tennis is right there beside it, its courts resurfaced from Wimbledon-esque greenery, to the slightly less aristocratic clay court, to the classless hard court, your typical public park surface. Anyone can use them and anyone should.
Because tennis is a beautiful game. From the simple up-the-T serve, to the more complicated, testicle-endangering ’tweener (basically trademarked and often unnecessarily performed by Roger Federer) the game is something to dedicate yourself to, and, not least of all, fun. The necessity of thinking one, two, three, however many moves ahead in order to gain the slightest sliver of advantage. The statistical calculations, nanosecond decisions, geometric logistics, all of which your mind performs with not so much as a puff of engine smoke. Though it’s not quite as complicated as it is made to appear in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” where Wallace was anything but timid in his descriptions of strategy—in fact it seems he made an effort to put the mathematical complexity of tennis on a pedestal (“I was willing to expand my logistical territory to countenance the devastating effect a 15- to 30-mph stutter-breeze swirling southwest to east would have on my best calculations as to how ambitiously to respond to Joe Perfecthair’s topspin drive into my backspin corner.”)
Though it’s easy and fun to romanticize the logistics involved in a serious rally, and though I’m certainly guilty of the same, the retroactive calculus Wallace applies to the game is not on the mind of any top echelon player. Rather, instinct, hand-eye, common sense, what a good friend of mine would call “intuition,” is most likely to blame for the coma-like trance of concentration. Not rocket science. The jest is apparent, but the reader still has to sit through it, as always. But this seems to be only one instance of a recurring fugue in the essays: simplification in place of the complex, complication in place of the simple.
Not to be discounted is the utterly solipsistic mental game always afoot in another dimension alongside the physical, running parallel and equally important. Tennis is a mental game, just as any coach would love to tell you. When Andre Agassi proclaimed that “tennis is the loneliest sport,” he was not wrong. To characterize tennis as somewhere between a kind of distant, non-contact boxing and a bodily exhausting chess (“chess on the run,” says DFW uncharacteristically snappishly) would be to understand this solipsism, the beastly internal confliction that nuzzles up to the game of tennis.
In ironic contrast to this inherent loneliness of the game, tennis proves an exceptionally social sport. The old man at the hot dog joint, my mom and me, friends from Warrior’s Varsity Tennis—symbiotic benefactors of its covalent bond. Take for instance Terrell, my old high school tennis coach. The man is old—seriously old—but every day you can see him practicing cross court backhands on his government pension and telling a story from his court bailiff days for the nth time to one of his tennis buddies. The sport of a lifetime.
In Wallace’s fiction, too, tennis serves as a platform for reminiscence, musing, boast. One of the primary settings and the ‘heart’ of his 1996 masterwork, Infinite Jest, is the cardioid-shaped Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), home to tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza. This aforementioned lonely-yet-social nature of tennis is perhaps why David Foster Wallace, a writer at the top of whose list of themes is loneliness, wrote about tennis so often. DFW’s attempt to connect, to reach through the page and caress readers, exists contextually in close association with the two-sided Écu that is tennis, which is perhaps a mirror of the isolated yet empathetically sound connection that DFW is able to establish through language.
Wallace writes in Infinite Jest, referring to tennis, “Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.” This is focused on the why of what I mentioned earlier, the giving of yourself to something. It’s what, later in the book, could have saved Don Gately, another major character, from a precipitous spiral, but it’s also what does, ultimately, send Hal into one. Whether or not this necessity to give oneself away is good, is another question, as DFW notes, but you can only hope that your gift is placed well, devoted to the righteous, the good. There’s only one to give, so why not lend it to a person, not a thing, a reciprocal human connection, love, friendship, a devotion to understanding and becoming someone as frail as you. So that, in the end, all you have is theirs. But if not someone, then something, living, joyous, human. Even if it’s across a net. And if it’s your only daughter over alcoholism, if it’s the intricacies of the French Horn over jail time, the world of graphic novels over self-indulgent insanity, fixing the hitch in your kick serve over hatred… if it’s any of these, then so be it.
I told the man in the hotdog line that I play occasionally, then turned to order a Snoopy’s Two Hotdog Tuesday Special (only $4.17) that I’d wolf down to keep my stomach from growling in AP Stat.