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What David Foster Wallace Talks About When He Talks About Tennis

For David Foster Wallace, tennis was beautiful. It all comes down to a combination of control, coordination, speed, endurance and “that weird mix of caution and abandon we call courage.” These elements came together to create a “nightmare of mechanical variables” in each and every rally, point and game. Wallace’s writing on tennis was collected into a book of essays released titled String Theory. Across the five essays contained within the book, Wallace revealed his theory and appreciation for the sport, through profiles, book reviews and on-the-ground reporting from various Grand Slams. “In other words,” Wallace wrote in one essay, “serious tennis is a kind of art.”

The essay from which the book takes its name was published in Esquire, back in July 1996. That essay is a profile of Michael Joyce, an American player who went on to peak at number 64 in the world rankings. As Wallace pointed out, “try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”

Wallace’s writing about tennis often showcases the unglamorous side of elite level sport, the killing time, the travelling, the waiting around for what could be your only match. “The realities of the men’s professional-tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals as you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin.”

Across most of these essays, this is the crux of Wallace’s sports writing. The thin line that stands between the talented players, the top 100 and the true upper crust. At one level, this is shown by the cash prizes on offer for professionals. Making it to the first round of the main draw brings serious financial rewards, but the qualifiers may be filled with players comfortably amongst the top 100 in the world, who may be “literally playing for their supper or for the money to make airfare home or to the site of the next qualie.”

You might not think that David Foster Wallace – he of Infinite Jest fame, the Pullitzer Prize nominee, the man described as the most gifted and original American novelist of his generation – was an obvious choice to chronicle the ins and outs of a global sporting industry. Before he was a writer, though, he was a regionally ranked youth tennis player, travelling across the Midwest and, often, winning tournaments.

This upbringing is the focus of Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley, the opening essay in String Theory. Originally published by Harper’s in 1991 – under the title Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes – the essay is a kind of coming-of-age tale, telling the story of Wallace’s childhood and his time as a “near great” junior tennis player.

Even in this telling, the divide between the elite and the also rans comes through. Wallace’s rise through the regional tennis rankings (he estimates he was about 100th in the entire United States) is driven by his skill at playing with and against the weather. Wallace doesn’t attribute his success to his talent or his training, instead it all comes down to a “weird proclivity for intuitive math, and the township where I learned and trained.” The winds of Tornado Alley were, in this regard, a benefit.

Explaining this further, Wallace details his general approach to winning against “bigger, faster, more coordinated, and better coached opponents.” He would hit the balls “unimaginatively,” eventually allowing the player at the other end of the court to be blown off course by the wind, his “ambitious balls aimed near the lines” to drift out of play. As Wallace said of his own game: “it wasn’t pretty or fun to watch.”

Eventually, Wallace’s mathematic gifts weren’t enough to carry him any further and he moved away from competitive tennis. A key moment in realising his limitations comes courtesy of Scott Davis, a “marginal figure” on the pro circuit (he actually reached number 11 in the mid ‘80s). Wallace’s central theme is key, again, to the essay. In his own retelling of his youth, the thin line between the good and the great is a constant reference. The tiny differences between those who will never make it and those who will, and then those who will really, really make it. That thin line is the windscreen that stopped Wallace’s weather-adjusted game in its tracks, it’s there in the national level player who eviscerated him to become a “marginal” pro.

But the essays in String Theory aren’t just about what it means to be near-great, either as a professional player or a junior champion. In one of the essays, originally published in the New York Times, Wallace comes face to face with greatness itself: Roger Federer. Watching Federer play is a religious experience, he wrote, punctuated with moments of sheer disbelief, which “are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” Even though he’s writing about the best male tennis player of his generation – or, in fact, any generation – Wallace still looks at the way that “the cream starts to rise and separate” from a young age.

The story of Tracy Austin – which, through a now well-known review of her autobiography, is also in the book – touches on Wallace’s own tennis career, being of a similar age and playing “half a country away and several plateaus below” the young Austin. He remembers hearing of a 14 year old girl from California winning a professional tournament. “None of us could come close to testing even a top eighteen year-old, much less pro-caliber adults.”

The review is scathing, emerging instead as a treatise on why so many sports memoirs are so boring. It does, however, show what happens when someone — the most famous tennis player of the moment — slips back across the line towards mortality. After talking about the injuries and freak accidents that derailed Austin’s rapid rise, Wallace points out that “having it all at seventeen and then losing it all by twenty-one because of stuff outside your control is just like death except you have to go on living afterward.”

The remaining essay takes a different angle, looking instead at the rampant commercialisation of the US Open and feels out of place from the rest of the book. Written in 1995, that commercialisation might have been a shock then but, in 2024 it seems standard, and Wallace’s observations almost quaint.

String Theory, then, is not so much about tennis but about the dividing lines that exist within the sport. When Wallace invites you to imagine being in the top 100 of anything, he gets to the gist of his sports writing. Up and down almost every country in the world, kids will be swapping their weeknights and weekends for time on the court. Most who try will never have what it takes. Some who do might rise up a little bit, become near great junior players like Wallace, while others will carry on upwards. Maybe they’ll play at a tournament, brush shoulders with the true greats and enter the top 100. Maybe they’ll spend a few years playing in qualifiers, losing money on flights and hotels and equipment.

A tiny proportion will make it to the top. In them, some genius lies that inspires the whole process to begin again. “Genius is not replicable,” Wallace wrote of Federer. “Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform – and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

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