Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News.
I grew up in a tennis household, amidst gleaming trophies of miniature champions immortalized in mid-serve. In my house, tennis dominated our television viewing, closets were stuffed with retired racquets, and the hampers always reeked.
To this day, my father is a tremendous player, with a game so solid you can’t pick it apart. Return his serve (good luck), and he’ll reply with dizzying spin. He complains about arthritis in his rotator cuff, then sends a lob to wherever you aren’t.
To be fair, his ability is hardly innate. Long before I was born, he began practicing at least every other night. (Playing actual matches was reserved for the weekends.) He would hone his serve by setting up empty tennis-ball cans in the service courts, knocking them down until he could place the ball with the kind of precision that squeezes a laugh out of a nervous opponent. At 76 years of age, his game is still tight (even if his speed on the court is reduced—osteopath’s orders); though when talking about diehard players, assessing whether 76 is young or old is missing the point: The important fact is he’s now been playing for 57 years. That’s a level of experience few amateur players will ever have time to catch up to.
It’s true that I have not and never will beat my father at tennis. I am probably more OK with this than he is; his coaching over the years has been a constant source of positive reinforcement, but despite his best efforts it has only gone far enough to turn me from a bad sport (it was years before he’d let me swing one of his new racquets again) into a serious appreciator, if not a player, of the game. I’ll give credit to my forehand as pretty devastating, but everything else is succotash.
I first came to Wallace through his David Lynch piece—which hooked me with its descriptions of the director’s constant coffee drinking and resultant urinating behind nearby trees during the filming of Lost Highway—which I read in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. But it was the adjacent story in the book, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness” (published as “The String Theory” in Esquire in 1996), that sealed Wallace’s place in my mind. Because finally, here was someone who could write, really write, about tennis. Someone who finds the joy in the game’s enduring physical and mental struggle, and the humor in realizing there are only a few people in the world who possess the dedication it takes to truly excel at the sport—and that you will never be one of those people. Because it is very funny to come face to face with your limitations. It’s the same kind of funny as when your father, 40 years your senior, places a serve to your backhand and all you can do is laugh it off.
I was taken so much with the article that I Xeroxed and mailed it to my father, who I knew would enjoy it as much as I did, and for much the same reasons. It’s widely lamented that there are no decent tennis movies,44 though there aren’t as many complaints about tennis books—this is both to do with the fact that tennis books center on the psychology of the game (as in, how to freak out other players and how to keep yourself from getting freaked out by other players) and because articles and excerpts fit more neatly into the rare holes that open in a player’s practice schedule.
I phoned a couple of weeks later, and asked how he’d liked it, and he said the footnotes threw him, and that he couldn’t finish it.45
Throughout the piece and in Infinite Jest, Wallace—who, as is widely noted, was a ranked junior player—distinguishes between “serious players” and the rest of us. (I weigh in more at the seriously unserious end of this scale.) In both works, he needs to draw this distinction because, of course, we can all guess that most readers are not tennis appreciators, much less tennis players, much less amateur players, much less professional players, much less the very best of the best, the Top 10, the Grand Slam winners. And while it’s partly out of reverence for the serious players’ ability, it’s also because, concentrically speaking, the vast majority of his audience will not fully get that reverence unless he spells it out. Certainly, Wallace’s style is powerful, muscular—he’s unafraid to force a point home.46
Which is why Wallace’s tennis writing is so dead-on, why it has always struck me so specially. Because I too love the game, and love knowing I will never be much of a tennis player (much less a serious player)—because I would rather watch and marvel at the ability of others. That is what I love. And I suppose Wallace has a character in Infinite Jest who does just that, too.