“The greatest tennis writer ever”

Dave Buchanan[1]
Department of English, MacEwan University

David Foster Wallace String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis 158 pages, hardcover. New York, NY: New American Library 2016 (A LIBRARY oF AMERICA SPECIAL PUBLICATION) ISBN 978-1-59853-480-1
David Foster Wallace
String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis
158 pages, hardcover.
New York, NY: New American Library 2016 (A Library of America Special Publication)
ISBN 978-1-59853-480-1

This “deluxe collector’s edition” from the Library of America gathers together all five of David Foster Wallace’s essays about tennis, originally published between 1991 and 2006. (Wallace also wrote about tennis in his fiction, most notably in Infinite Jest, but this collection sticks with his nonfiction pieces). The essays have all appeared before, most in several different places, and sometimes two of them in the same book (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), but this is the first time they have been marshalled together in a separate volume specifically about tennis.

I’d read four of the five essays before, but always in other contexts, amid essays on the diverse subjects Wallace wrote about, from television to lexicography to travel to pornography–or alone, as in the case of “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” which first appeared under a different title in the New York Times Play Magazine. Putting the essays together in one tidy, slender volume is a terrific idea; reading them side by each, one does get a new appreciation of Wallace’s particular genius for writing about this game that he called “the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding.”

The five essays cover a broad range of tennis topics and issues. “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” is autobiographical, recounting Wallace’s travails as a “near-great” junior in Illinois, thanks in part to his “math-weenie” status, which made the angles easy, and an uncanny Midwestern genius for playing the wind. The other four essays focus on professional players and events, from relative unknown Michael Joyce (then ranked no. 79) playing a qualifier for the Canadian Open in Montreal in 1995, to the career and autobiography of Tracy Austin, to Pete Sampras at the US Open, and Federer at Wimbledon.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, another fine essayist with three names, as well as a man who knows a thing or two about sports writing, provides a brief introduction to the essays, which, I must say, I found a little disappointing. Sullivan presses the literary pedigree of tennis too earnestly for my liking. (In the days before Google, gathering such obscure trivia was charming; now it feels like the stuff of a blog post.) When he finally gets around to talking about Wallace, he does offer a few insightful observations about parallels between Wallace’s writing and tennis playing, but then the introduction abruptly ends. It’s weird.

Thankfully, it’s Wallace’s one-of-a kind prose that is the main attraction here. The essays are full of brilliant descriptions of the game and its players. “Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip,” his service motion “lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact.” Sampras displays a “weird boneless grace,” though at times he is “almost frail, cerebral, a poet, both wise and sad, tired in the way only democracies get tired.” As if this main-text prose weren’t enough to carry us along, Wallace’s fancy foot(note) work is everywhere on display too, a parallel running commentary along the bottom of the pages, often containing some of Wallace’s best material.

But what sets Wallace’s tennis writing apart from that of other literary devotees of the game, such as John McPhee and Martin Amis, is the way he combines original and detailed descriptions of actual playing with a penetrating analysis of professional tennis as a cultural phenomenon. His giant-eyeball gaze takes in and assesses the full aura of the pro tennis enterprise, from advertising to concessions to rankings to fans to why we feel compelled to hear the (almost inevitably dreadful) life stories of tennis players (and other athletes).

Is David Foster Wallace “the greatest tennis writer ever,” as the blurb on the back of the book boldly claims? After reading this new collection, it’s hard not to agree. But read it and judge for yourself.

The Library of America has put together a totally cool physical object with this edition: tennis-court green hardcover with crisp white text inside a single service box and a simple racquet with yellow ball in the centre. The inside cover boards are extreme close-ups of green-yellow tennis balls, fuzz and all. It’s smart and stylish and would look handsome on even the most basic IKEA shelf (preferably white).

Copyright © Dave Buchanan 2017
Originally published in Aethlon

[1] Dave Buchanan teaches in the English Department at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. His current research explores the first generation of cycle-travel literature from the 1880s and 1890s. He blogs about the semi-serious cycling life at dustymusette.blogspot.ca.


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