Books: String Theory – David Foster Wallace on Tennis

String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis

Introduction By John Jeremiah Sullivan

Library of America Special Publication, $19.95

David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis are a treasure, some of the best writing ever on the sport, and they are all here in the Library of America’s this deluxe hardcover collector’s edition.

Wallace was called “the best mind of his generation” by A.O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times.

Wallace wrote about tennis with the authority of an insider, the style of a literary virtuoso, and an admiration that a dedicated fan would have.

Wallace has been called “a spellbinding writer on the subject of tennis by Michael MacCambridge of Grantland, and “the greatest tennis writer ever” by Toure in the New York Times Book Review.

String Theory includes his profiles of Roger Federer, Michael Joyce, and Tracy Austin, and other essays, pieces hailed as some of the greatest and most innovative magazine writing in recent times by sportswriters and literary critics.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and the Southern Editor of the Paris Review, writes a great introduction on Wallace.

Sullivan writes, “David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis because life gave it to him – he played the game well at the junior level – and because he was a writer who in his own way made use of wilder days, turning relentlessly in his work to the stuff of his own experience….It is perhaps not far-fetched to imagine Wallace’s noticing early on that tennis is a good sport for literary types and purposes. It draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games. Even boxers have a corner, but in professional tennis it is a rules violation for your coach to communicate with you beyond polite encouragement, and spectators are asked to keep silent while you play. Your opponent is far away, or if near is indifferently hostile. It may be as close as we come to physical chess, or a kind of chess in which the mind and body are at one in attacking essentially mathematical problems. So, a good game not just for writers but for philosophers too. The perfect game for Wallace.”

Wallace’s essay on Federer featured here is titled “Federer Both Flesh and Not” was originally published in The New York Times’ short-lived sports magazine, Play.

Wallace writes of Federer, “A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evolve. Federer’s backhand 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, firsthand, 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.”

Wallace writes about something most tennis fans, really fans of all sports, can relate to, and that is their feeling when an amazing moment happens. That is very true of Roger Federer and he writes about them as such:

“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, watching the young Swiss at play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK. The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.”

In “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” Wallace writes, “Right now, it’s 1530H. on 3 September , the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, the holiday that comes to represent the American summer’s right bracket. But L.D.W. always falls in the middle of the U.S. Open; it’s the time of the third and fourth rounds, the tournament’s meat; the time of trench warfare and polysyllabic names. Right now, in the National Tennis Center’s special Stadium – a towering hexagon whose N, S, E, and W sides have exterior banners saying “WELCOME TO THE 1995 U.S. OPEN – A USTA EVENT’ – right now a whole inland sea of sunglasses and hats in the Stadium is rising to applaud as Pete Sampras and the Australian Mark Philippoussis are coming out on court, as scheduled, to labor. The two come out with their big bright athletic bags and their grim-looking Security escorts. The applause-acoustics are deafening. From down here near the court, looking up, the Stadium looks to be shaped like a huge wedding cake, and once past the gentler foothills of the box seats the aluminum stands seem to rise away on all sides almost vertically, so vertiginously steep that a misstep on any of the upper stairs looks like it would be certain and hideous death.”

Waalace wrote of who filled the crowd that day, “But apparently over 50% of tickets for this year’s Open were pre-sold to corporations, who like to use them for the cultivation of clients and the entertainment of their executives, and there is indeed about the Stadium crowd down here something indefinable that strongly suggests Connecticut license plates and very green lawns. In sum, the socioeconomic aura here for the day’s headline match is one of management rather than labor.”


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