“Tennis” is a wonderful word in the sense that it never really existed. That is, although the game is French to the core—not one but two of France’s early kings died at the tennis courts, and the Republic was born on one, with the Tennis Court Oath—the French never called it that, tennis. They called it jeu de paume, the “game of the palm,” or “handball,” if we want to be less awkwardly literal about it. (Originally they had played it with the bare hand, then came gloves, then paddles, then rackets.) When the French would go to serve, they often said, Tenez!, the French word for “take it,” meaning “coming at you, heads up.” We preserve this custom of warning the opponent in our less lyrical way by stating the score just before we toss up the ball. It was the Italians who, having overheard the French make these sounds, began calling the game “ten-ez” by association. A lovely detail in that it suggests a scene, a Florentine ear at the fence or the entryway, listening. They often built those early courts in the forest, in clearings. The call in the air. Easy to think of Benjy in “The Sound and the Fury,” hearing the golfers shout “Caddy!” and assuming they mean his sister, only here the word moves between languages, out of France via the transnational culture of the aristocratic court and into Italy. There it enters European literature around the thirteen-fifties, the time of Petrarch’s “Phisicke Against Fortune.” In considering the anxiety that consumes so much of human experience, he writes, “And what is the cause hereof, but only our own lightness & daintiness: for we seem to be good for nothing else, but to be tossed hither & thither like a Tennise bal, being creatures of very short life, of infinite carefulness, & yet ignorant unto what shore to sail with our ship.”
A metaphor for human existence, then, and for fate: “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls,” in John Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi,” “struck and banded / Which way please them.” That is one tradition. In another, tennis becomes a symbol of frivolity, of a different kind of “lightness.” Grown men playing with balls. The history of the game’s being used that way is twined up with an anecdote from the reign of Henry V, the powerful young king who had once been Shakespeare’s reckless Prince Hal. According to one early chronicler, “The Dauphin, thinking King Henry to be given to such plays and light follies . . . sent to him a tun of tennis-balls.” King Henry’s imagined reply at the battle of Agincourt was rendered into verse, probably by the poet-monk John Lydgate, around 1536:
Some hard tennis balls I have hither brought
Of marble and iron made full round.
I swear, by Jesu that me dear bought,
They shall beat the walls to the ground.
That story flowers into a couplet of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” circa 1599. The package from the Dauphin arrives. Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Exeter, takes it. “What treasure, uncle?” the king asks. “Tennis-balls, my liege,” Exeter answers. “And we understand him well,” Henry says (a line meant to echo an earlier one, said under very different circumstances, Hal’s equally famous “I know you all and will awhile uphold”):
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days
Not measuring what use we made of them.
A more eccentric instance of tennis-as-metaphor pops up in Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” where the tennis court is compared with the ocean. It occurs in the part of the play that scholars now believe was written by a tavern-keeper named George Wilkins. Pericles has just been tossed half dead onto the Greek shore and is discovered by three fishermen. He says,
A man whom both the waters and the wind,
In that vast tennis-court, hath made the ball
For them to play upon, entreats you pity him.
These lines may cause some modern readers to recall David Foster Wallace’s “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” an essay about learning to play the game in the central Midwest, where extreme winds are an almost constant factor, but where Wallace succeeded, he tells us, in part because of a “weird robotic detachment” from the “unfairnesses of wind and weather.”
David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis because life gave it to him—he had 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. But the fact of the game in his biography came before any thought of its use as material. At least I assume that’s the case. It can be amazing how early in life some writers figure out what they are and start to see their lives as stories that can be controlled. 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.
He wrote about it in fiction, essays, journalism, and reviews; it may be his most consistent theme at the surface level. Wallace himself drew attention, consciously or not, to both his love for the game and its relevance to how he saw the world. He knew something, too, about the contemporary literature of the sport. The close attention to both physics and physical detail that energizes the opening of his 1996 Esquire_ piece on a then-young Michael Joyce (a promising power baseliner who became a sought-after coach and helped Maria Sharapova win two of her Grand Slam titles) echoes clearly the first lines of John McPhee’s “Levels of the Game” _(one of the few tennis books I can think of that give as much pleasure as the one you’re holding): “Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air. The toss is high and forward. If the ball were allowed to drop, it would, in Ashe’s words, ‘make a parabola.’ ”
For me, the cumulative effect of Wallace’s tennis-themed nonfiction is a bit like being presented with a mirror, one of those segmented mirrors they build and position in space, only this one is pointed at a writer’s mind. The game he writes about is one that, like language, emphasizes the closed system, makes a fetish of it (“Out!”). He seems both to exult and to be trapped in its rules, its cruelties. He loves the game but yearns to transcend it. As always in Wallace’s writing, Wittgenstein is the philosopher who most haunts the approach, the Wittgenstein who told us that reality is inseparable from language (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”), and that language is inseparable from game (both being at root “part of an activity, a form of life”).
From such a description a reader might conclude that the writer under discussion was dry and abstract, and in the end only using the sport, in a convenient, manipulative way, to say other things, which he deemed more significant—but that is not the writer you’ll meet in the following pages. This is instead one who can transpose on-court sensations into his prose. In those paragraphs that describe how growing up in a windy country shaped his game, briefly allowing him to excel over more talented opponents who tended to get frustrated in unpredictable conditions, he tells us that he was “able to use the currents kind of the way a pitcher uses spit. 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. . . .” In reviewing Tracy Austin’s autobiography, he finds a way, despite his disappointment with the book, to say something about athletic greatness and mediocrity, and what truly differentiates them, remembering how as a player he would often “get divided, paralyzed. As most ungreat athletes do. Freeze up, choke. Lose our focus. Become self-conscious. Cease to be wholly present in our wills and choices and movements.” Unlike the great, who become so in part because it would never occur to them not to be “totally present.” Their “blindness and dumbness,” in other words, are not “the price of the gift” but “its essence,” and are even the gift itself. The writer, existing only in reflection, is of all beings most excluded from the highest realms.
Possibly Wallace’s finest tennis piece, certainly his most famous, is “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” an essay first published in 2006 in the Times’ short-lived sports magazine Play. The greatest tennis writer of his generation was writing about the greatest player of his generation. The sentence needs no qualifiers. Federer himself later remarked, in a question-and-answer forum, that he was astonished at what a “comprehensive” piece Wallace had produced, despite the fact that Federer had spent only “20 min with him in the ATP office.” But I doubt Wallace wanted more face time than that. He had come to Wimbledon in search of not the man Roger Federer but rather the being Federer seemed to become when he competed. What Wallace wanted to see occurred only as spectacle. In that respect and others, it is interesting to compare the Federer piece with the profile Wallace had written precisely a decade before, about Michael Joyce. I tend to prefer the earlier piece, for its thick description and subtleties, while recognizing the greatness of the later one. In the Joyce piece, Wallace had written about a nobody, a player no one had heard of and who was never going to make it on the tour. That was the subtext, and at times the text, of the essay: you could be that_ good and still not be good enough. The essay was about agony. In Federer, though, he had a player who offered him a different subject: transcendence. What it actually looked like. An athlete who appeared “to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” One can see exactly what Wallace means in footage of the point he breaks down so beautifully—a “sixteen-stroke point” that reads as dramatically as a battle scene—which occurred in the second set of Federer’s 2006 Wimbledon final match against Rafael Nadal, a point that ends with a backhand one can replay infinite times and somehow come no closer to comprehending, struck from about an inch inside the baseline with some kind of demented spin that causes the ball to slip _over the net and vanish. Nadal never touches it. Wallace is able not only to give us the moment but to let us see the strategic and geometric intelligence that went into setting it up, the ability Federer had (has, as of this writing) to “hypnotize” opponents through shot selection.
The key sentences in the Federer essay, to my mind, occur in the paragraph that mentions “evolution.” In discussing the “power baseline” style that has defined the game in the modern era—two heavy hitters standing back and blasting wrist-fracturing ground strokes at each other—Wallace writes that “it is not, as pundits have publicly feared for years, the evolutionary endpoint of tennis. The player who’s shown this to be true is Roger Federer.” One imagines his writing this sentence with something almost like gratitude. It had taken genius to break through the brutal dictates of the power game and bring back an all-court style, to bring back art. And Federer, as Wallace emphasizes, did this from “within” the power game; he did it while handling shots that were moving at hurricane force. Inside the wind tunnel of modern tennis, he crafted a style that seemed made for a butterfly, yet was crushingly effective. What a marvelous subject, and figure, for a twenty-first-century novelist, a writer working in a form that is also (perpetually?) said to be at the end of its evolution, and an artist who similarly, when at his best, showed new ways forward.
This piece was drawn from the introduction to “String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis,” which is out May 10th from Library of America.
“This book has nothing to do with physics, but its title will make you look super smart if you’re reading it on a train or plane. String Theory is a collection of five of Wallace’s best essays on tennis, a sport I gave up in my Microsoft days and am once again pursuing with a passion. You don’t have to play or even watch tennis to love this book. The late author wielded a pen as skillfully as Roger Federer wields a tennis racket. Here, as in his other brilliant works, Wallace found mind-blowing ways of bending language like a metal spoon.” –Bill Gates, “My Favorite Books of 2016”
“David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay turned me into an avid tennis fan.”
—Lin-Manuel Miranda, The New York Times Book Review
“A wonderful and inspiring collection for fans of either tennis or eye-popping prose.”
“String Theory expertly articulates why tennis fans love the sport so, capturing both the human drudgery behind its mastery and, for those who make it to the world-class level, its otherworldliness…[It] stands as a monument to Wallace’s talent—and his dedication to the game.”
—Doug Perry, The Oregonian/The Spin of the Ball
“This collection is a tennis classic that deserves shelf space next to John McPhee’s Levels of the Game and Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly…Between its grass-green covers, five of Wallace’s erudite and engaging tennis essays are collected and, together with a pitch-perfect introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan, the result is nothing short of delightful, like a ball streaking off a racquet’s sweet spot for a winner…David Foster Wallace is a great talent, writing on a subject he knows and loves. And that make this little book, quite simply, an ace.”
—Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News
“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.”
—NY Sports Day
“Ruminative, digressive, lyrical, funny, sad, sometimes borderline lunatic, these posthumously collected journalistic pieces have all the hallmarks of Wallace’s novels.”
—The Washington Post
“Wallace’s essays on tennis, collected here in a remarkable volume, are a mixture of courtside reportage and armchair rumination. How, he asks, are those who play tennis at the highest level able to do what they do? What is their genius? When we watch, what are we missing? The tennis-obsessive will find Wallace’s considerations almost bewilderingly insightful.”
— The Telegraph (UK)
“Wallace’s grasp of tennis was truly prodigious. The analytical powers that must have ended up hindering him as a player made him a peerless observer of the sport. He has often been described as the best tennis writer of all time, and these essays don’t disabuse that notion.”
— The Guardian (UK)
“What makes this collection so valuable for serious tennis fans is the chance to see ‘the most beautiful sport there is’ through Wallace’s eyes. In a nation that often derides tennis as effete because it lacks physical contact, Wallace sees it as manly; ‘It is to artillery and airstrikes what football is to infantry and attrition.’ Deep down I always knew tennis was a war game. To get wrapped up in this collection is to get pulled deep into the mind of Wallace and, once there, of course, his inescapable subject. ‘Midwest junior tennis was also my initiation into true adult sadness,’ he wrote. In his early teens Wallace became one of the better tournament players in the Midwest by combining his understanding of geometry with a Zen attitude about the horribly annoying regional winds and a defensive style that focused on not missing shots, thus making other kids go mad.”
—Toure, Town & Country