Review | Grace Under Pressure: David Foster Wallace on Tennis

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Jeffrey Meyers


Grace Under Pressure:
David Foster Wallace on Tennis


String Theory
by David Foster Wallace, New American Library, 2016, pp.158, £16.99 (hardback) 

Many writers have played tennis: Nabokov, Frost, Pound, Hemingway, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, even Solzhenitsyn in Vermont and Martin Amis today. Like poetry, tennis has strict rules and requires technical skill. It is individual yet social, aesthetically pleasing, intellectual, at times erotic. Despite its formal rituals and elegant traditions, players can be egoistic, aggressive, even violent, eager for victory and angry in defeat.

String Theory (2016), which puns on David Foster Wallace’s talent in tennis and expertise in math, reprints the novelist’s five long articles on the sport, written from 1991 to 2006. The handsome green cover—with a rectangular frame, silver racket and seamed yellow ball—suggests a game on a grass court. Literary, not journalistic, Wallace omits mind-numbing statistics and “up-close and personal” details about the players’ friends and girls, family and children, coaches and trainers, agents and clothing, cheering section and entourage, celebrity and adulation. Wallace concentrates on the competition and analyzes the physical and psychological qualities needed to excel. His intelligence, style, humor, wit and sly sexual jests make him the best-ever writer on tennis.

“Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”, a memoir of his Midwestern boyhood, describes himself as the young competitor who became the shrewd narrator of the dynamics and sensations of the game. The teenage Wallace had the speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy. He maintained, with some exaggeration, that “between the ages of twelve and fifteen I was a near-great junior tennis player,” ranked 17th in the Midwest. In his flat prairie Illinois homeland, the courts were deformed by “breezes and gusts and thermals and downdrafts.” Nets, like sexual erections, stood out parallel to the ground and hard-hit balls made sharp right turns and flew onto the next court.

But Wallace was shrewd about “the angles and alleys of serious tennis,” which required geometric thinking. He says “I could play just forever, sending back moonballs baroque with spin . . . I could hit curves way out into cross-breezes that’d drop the ball just fair; I had a special wind-serve that had so much spin the ball turned oval in the air and curved left to right.” His strategy, though not thrilling, was effective: “I didn’t hit the ball all that hard, but I rarely made unforced errors, and I was fast, and my general approach was simply to keep hitting the ball back to the opponent until the kid screwed up.” His biographer D. T. Max writes that he “found that calculating angles and adjusting for wind velocity gave him an advantage over other players.” But his intellectual “habit of rationalizing every hit had its downside; his teammates played more by instinct and so were faster.”

In his climactic account of frequent homegrown tornadoes, Wallace dramatically claims that he was once blown over the net, “my feet not once touching the ground over fifty-odd feet.” Smashed against a distant fence, he got deep quadrangular lines impressed on his face, torso and legs that made him look like a pressed waffle. But he felt free to invent this exciting story, which never actually took place.

In “Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”, Wallace wonders why this child prodigy (and her ghostwriter) could not produce an interesting autobiography. Austin had an amazing career and disastrous life. She was on the cover of World Tennis at age four, won her first pro tournament at fourteen and captured the U.S. Open at sixteen. He compares this achievement to “someone who was ineligible for a DMV learner’s permit winning the Indianapolis 500.” The Shirley Temple of the court, “she was the first real child star in women’s tennis, and in the late ’70s she was prodigious, beautiful and inspiring.” Alluding to Hamlet’s guilty mother and to Sigmund Freud’s theories, Wallace notes that Austin insists, with unconvincing “Gertrudian fervor,” that her mother did not force her into tennis and uses “Viennese repression” to exonerate her.

Wallace states that Austin carefully avoids the dark side of the game and that “ignorance of her sport’s grittier realities”—payments to players to appear in tournaments, corrupt linesmen biased to favorites, bribes given to throw a match—“seems literally incredible.” But she probably knew about these crimes and kept silent to maintain her media manners and virginal image. By contrast, Nastase, McEnroe and Connors became famous for their profanity and tantrums.

Despite her superb physical coordination, Austin was uncommonly prone to freak accidents: “coaches who fall on her while ice-skating and break her ankle, psychotic chiropractors who pull her spine out of alignment, waiters who splash her with scalding water.” Though Wallace doesn’t speculate on the reasons for these disasters, they may have been forms of guilt-ridden self-punishment for her premature success and early failure. After these crippling events, and while trying to make a comeback, she was on the way to the U.S. Open when a speeding van drove through a red light, shattered her leg and nearly killed her. In a classically tragic trajectory, her athletic life was compressed from sixteen to twenty-one when her career, both literally and figuratively, crashed.

Austin failed to deliver the fully realized memoir that Wallace hoped to read. He wanted her book to be perceptive and profound, to penetrate the mystery of her genius. Her history is fascinating, her account dead. Slavishly following the trite formula of the sports biography—which editors elicit, ghostwriters glorify and readers relish—Austin serves up a string of robotic banalities and dead clichés. After winning the final against Chris Evert, her reaction was: “I immediately knew what I had done, which was win the U.S. Open, and I was thrilled.” She also provides a typically uplifting comment, “Tennis took me like a magic carpet to all kinds of places and all kinds of people.” A celebrity herself, she was also thrilled by the presence of other celebrities. Wallace regrets that “the book is inanimate because it communicates no real feeling and so gives us no sense of a conscious person.”

Many top athletes, who often skip college and turn pro right after high school, are both uneducated and inarticulate. They painfully reveal this every time they’re interviewed on television after a big win and offer something like, “Well, I was real happy and also pleased.” Wallace finds it hard “to reconcile the vapidity of Austin’s narrative mind with the extraordinary mental powers that are required by world-class tennis . . . [playing] with huge sums of money at stake and enormous crowds of people watching her.” But agility and power, intense focus and concentration, grace under pressure, even under assault, are very different from intellectual acuity. Wallace paradoxically concludes that “blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift because they are its essence.” In his later essay on Michael Joyce, he returns to this theory and tries to imagine “what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think.” Like tennis pros, the technically proficient astronauts could not describe their experience in space. Only Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon could do this.

In “Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry” Wallace describes his feelings when watching the untelevised realities of the Canadian Open in July 1995. With idiosyncratic medical and sexual humor, he mentions the jagged “EKG skyline of downtown Montreal” and the huge phallic photo of the dome of ice cream “unabashedly glansular.” Riffing on national stereotypes, he comically describes the foreign players: spidery French guys with gelled hair, lugubrious Germans, bored-looking Italians, blank-eyed Swedes and pockmarked Colombians. The Czech Petr Korda has “the face of—eerily, uncannily—a fresh-hatched chicken.” Wallace scrutinizes the competitors with the eye of a trained physiognomist, noting that most have similar builds: “big muscular legs, shallow chests, skinny necks, and one normal-sized arm and one monstrously huge hypertrophic arm.”

Their weird names, which commentators find hard to pronounce, match their distorted bodies: Martin Sinner and Martin Zumpft, Udo Riglewski and Slava Dosedel, the oblivious Guy Forget and perverse Cyril Suk. Michael Chang, as if depilated, has totally hairless legs while Pete Sampras boasts unbelievably hairy appendages. Like Scandinavians given unfair advantage when competing for the Nobel Prize, Canadians, especially Québecois, are blessed in Montreal as “uniquely deserving,” vault over higher ranked players and squeeze into the qualifying rounds.

Michael Joyce, at 5’ 11” and 165 pounds, looks compact and stocky: “He is fair-skinned and has reddish hair and the kind of patchy, vaguely pubic goatee of somebody who isn’t quite able yet to grow real facial hair.” He was the top-ranked junior in America, is currently rated the 79th best player on earth and is placed by Wallace “on the cusp between the major leagues and AAA ball.” Wallace rapturously defines tennis as the most beautiful and demanding kind of art: “It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that strange mix of caution and abandon we call courage.” When Joyce plays a weak Canadian opponent, Wallace describes the match as a feral fight, “as carnage of a particular high-level sort; it’s like watching an extremely large and powerful predator get torn to pieces by an even larger and more powerful predator.”

Like most players, Joyce does not have—cannot afford to have—any interests outside of tennis except big-budget movies and popular novels sold in airports. “He wants to be the best,” Wallace concludes, “to have his name known, to hold professional trophies over his head as he patiently turns in all four directions for the media.” Though famous, he submits to manipulation. But Joyce failed to realize his high expectations. He had greater success as the coach of the beautiful Russian Maria Sharapova who, under his aegis, won three Grand Slams and reached #1 in the world.

“Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open” is a humorous and satiric overkill piece about sponsorial greed. Wallace opens with the match between Pete Sampras and Mark Philippousis. Since the American and Australian are both of Greek descent, he calls their game the post-modern Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. He states, “Philippousis is oligarchic: he has a will and seeks to impose it. Sampras is more democratic, i.e. more chaotic but also more human.” Mark likes to dance in place between points. Pete, “a kind of angry eel getting ready to writhe,” sweats through his shorts “in an embarrassing way that suggests incontinence.” Neither one can play with full-bore intensity for five sets. Wallace doesn’t actually describe Sampras’ victory—in the third round he lost the first set and won the next three—but cunningly shifts the focus from the competition to the disastrous effects of commerce.

The rules of the courts are strict, the explosion of capitalism rampant. Wallace calls modern tennis a multinational sport, “a marketing subdivision of very large corporations.” They officially sponsor not only the whole tournament, but also each individual event. In addition to the plague of advertising, the viral concession stands are designed to separate the spectators from their cash. During, as well as between, the matches people frantically buy things instead of watching the game. Crowds, with stylish women dressed to suggest how they’d look when naked, swarm madly around the stadium like mobs at the fall of Saigon. The stores empty as fast as coastal depots during hurricane warnings. Since tournament tickets and all the widely publicized products are available only to wealthy consumers, “Democracy” in his title is ironic.

All this huckstering is worlds apart from the atmosphere surrounding the tennis tournaments in the early 1950s, when I grew up in Forest Hills and walked to the U.S. Open at the West Side Tennis Club. Almost all the players were American, English and Australian. There were grass courts and wooden rackets, white clothes and white balls. There was no noise or cheering, no ads or television, no lucrative endorsements or huge prizes. Everyone behaved with polite reserve and good manners. When one player got the benefit of an unfair call, he didn’t swing at the next shot and evened up the score. In 1973, at his tennis club in southern Spain, Lew Hoad told me that when he won the Australian, French and British Grand Slams as an amateur in 1956 he earned only a few thousand dollars.

Wallace shifts from satire to reverence in his last essay, “Federer Both Flesh and Not.” He justifies the value of his eye-witness account by emphasizing the difference between watching television and live tennis, which he compares to video porn and real love. He dislikes the way most people write about tennis in terms of war: “elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive stats and technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting.” Instead, he penetrates to the essence of the sport by describing the beauty and grace of the body, exemplified by Federer.

Wallace had mentioned, without explaining why, that “he loathes Agassi with a passion.” He now begins by recalling that Federer had defeated Agassi in the 2005 U.S. Open final and that Nadal “beat the absolute shit out of Agassi” at Wimbledon before facing Federer in the English finals in 2006. Contrasting the Spaniard and the Swiss, Wallace notes “the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the intricate clinical artistry of the north. Cleaver and scalpel,” and adds the Nietzschean antithesis of Dionysus and Apollo. Unlike most players, Federer—Wallace’s beau idéal—travels with his girlfriend and handles his own business affairs. He is stoical, mentally tough and a good sportsman as well as decent, thoughtful and charitable.  

Explaining how Federer beat Nadal, Wallace says that he exemplifies the superior strength and conditioning, the pace, topspin and aggressive angles of the power-baseline game. His rapid reactions, astonishing movements and range of reflexes create what Wallace calls the Federer Moments that account for his success: “The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” He is both flesh and spirit—feathery, as his German surname implies. Wallace cannot describe the whole match, but suggests Federer’s victory with one quintessential shot: “Federer steps to this ball and now hits a totally different crosscourt backhand, this one much shorter and sharper-angled, an angle no one would anticipate, and so heavy and blurred with topspin that it lands shallow and just inside the sideline and takes off hard after the bounce, and Nadal can’t move in to cut it off and can’t get to it laterally along the baseline, because of all the angle and topspin—end of point. It’s a spectacular winner, a Federer Moment.”

Professionals embody an ideal perfection that serious players can strive for but can never achieve. Wallace, who finds them compelling, writes that top athletes, hybrids of animals and angels, carve out “exemptions from physical laws . . . and are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but also televisable.”


Words by Jeffrey Meyers.
String Theory by David Foster Wallace is available to buy here.


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Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has had thirty-three books translated into fourteen languages, published on six continents. He’s recently published Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville in 2016, Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy in 2018.