The Mental Game

David Foster Wallace, String Theory

Library of America Special Edition, 158pp, £15.00, ISBN 9781598534801

reviewed by Melanie White

Tennis rarely seems to figure among the best literary sports-writing. Baseball and boxing are two well-covered arenas (Gay Talese on the former, in his profile of Joe DiMaggio, for example, and Norman Mailer’s ground-breaking participatory chronicling of the latter). Hunter S. Thompson’s famously wild, kinetic take on the Kentucky Derby for Rolling Stone revealed at least as much about himself as the actual event, memorably conjuring the frenzied scene in his signature Gonzo style.

Perhaps one key to great sports-writing is not to come at the action directly, in the manner of ghostwritten, cliché-ridden hero-memoir, but to use sport as a prism through which to explore something else: the workings of class and commerce at the US Open, say, or the sharp sense of personal inadequacy in the presence of greatness. David Foster Wallace adopts this kind of approach in his five essays on tennis, originally published between 1991 and 2006, here gathered together in String Theory.

As an accomplished junior player, Wallace loved the game, unexpectedly, for its mathematical appeal (calculating court angles, ball spin, varying speeds) and took perverse delight in harnessing the Midwestern winds of his Illinois childhood to foil more technically accomplished opponents. His quirky, personal account of his early involvement in competitive tennis, ‘Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,’ opens the collection and primes us for the psychological fault-line that develops throughout the essays: that of Wallace’s sense of inadequacy, knowing enough about the game to be able to recognise world-class skill and to feel keenly the gulf between his own abilities and those of his idols (most notably, here, Tracy Austin and Roger Federer). He watches the Canadian Open qualifiers ‘with a mixture of awe and sad surprise,’ he writes. ‘I have been brought up sharply. I do not play and never have played the same game as these low-ranked pros.’

His pained observation elsewhere of the incredible difficulty of achieving top-100 status in anything should have tormented him less, perhaps, considering he more than made up for a stunted tennis career with his achievement in belles lettres (quite literally among a top 100: Time magazine included his 2005 novel Infinite Jest in its list of best English-language novels published since 1923). Subtle allusions to depression loom more significantly than they might have at the time of writing, given Wallace’s eventual suicide in 2008. But this is to belie the essentially passionate, insightful, frequently hilarious nature of these pieces, which offer an unparalleled insight into the game of tennis both on a personal and professional level.

The centrepiece of the collection (full title: ‘Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness’) takes the inspired angle of following a player through the qualifying rounds (the ‘Qualies’) of the 1995 Canadian Open, rather than focusing on one of the more glittery top seeds. Through his profiling of Michael Joyce, a top-notch player just outside the ranking required for direct entry into the main tournament, Wallace reveals the deep level of sacrifice involved in becoming a world-class athlete, as well as the dark corporate engine of professional sport. (He also, with great comic flair, gets into the overwhelmingly commercial nature of large tournaments in the essay ‘Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open.’) In a style common to much of Wallace’s writing, he employs extensive footnotes to include additional, often key background, opinion and gossipy colour; these aren’t really supplementary but essential, the meat of the article, as Wallace buries many gems there. On ‘the most talented, the most beautiful, the most tormented’ player John McEnroe, for example, Wallace mentions, ‘For me, watching McEnroe don a polyester blazer and do stiff lame truistic color commentary for TV is like watching Faulkner do a Gap ad.’ In another footnote, he contemplates Joyce’s relationship with his coach, Sam Aparicio:

The stress and weird loneliness of pro tennis – where everybody’s in the same community, sees each other every week, but is constantly on the diasporic move, and is each other’s rival, with enormous amounts of money at stake and life essentially a montage of airports and bland hotels and non-home-cooked food and nagging injuries and staggering long-distance bills, and people’s families back home tending to be wackos, since only wackos will make the financial and temporal sacrifices necessary to let their offspring become good enough at something to turn pro at it – all this means that most players lean heavily on their coaches for emotional support and friendship as well as technical counsel.

In fact, this is a parenthesis within a footnote: an aside within an aside. Wallace’s mind spins out in ever more fascinating ways, layering on detail and perception to lend a psychological understanding of the sport and its players far beyond the physical game. He favours such long sentences, too, but they draw rather than lose the reader, given Wallace’s command of rhythm and language. His writing is powered by a palpable love for tennis that propels him to inquire into every aspect of the sport, a curiosity that infects his prose and leads him to amass countless riveting observations. At one point he runs over to a Hungarian player to question what happens to the gel in his hair when he sweats during play, but neither the player nor his coach could understand English well enough to answer. This is the only instance where Wallace seems to fail to procure a telling detail; but the fact that he includes the anecdote nevertheless enables us to imagine perfectly well the sticky consequences of vanity on the court.

This is not to suggest Wallace neglects the central, physical sporting action. He often takes the useful approach of delineating, in precise detail, a single point, recreating the play with great visual clarity and then widening out into discussion of issues like the old serve-and-volley style versus ‘power baseline’ play of the nineties/noughties. The sole weakness of the book might be that, given the age of the pieces, some of the players are no longer active, which could cause the book to feel dated; but as Federer has remained top of the game for more than a decade, the final canonising essay, ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not,’ remains relevant despite having been written in 2006. The sustained quality of the writing, though, ensures its ongoing appeal. ‘The realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of sirloin,’ he writes in his piece on Joyce. Watching a pro warm up is ‘like watching a great artist casually sketch something,’ and suggests ‘a very powerful engine in low gear.’ When it starts to rain, ‘little fungal domes of umbrella start appearing all over the stands.’ ‘Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip.’ Lovely examples are endless.

Wallace’s piece ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ is in fact a review of her ghostwritten memoir, Beyond Center Court: My Story. Apart from the tale of Austin’s remarkable prodigy and misfortune-prone demise (after a litany of injuries and working for five years to make a comeback, she was hit by a car on her way to play at Flushing Meadows’ National Tennis Center), Wallace breaks down the inherent problems of such celebrity sportswriting, in large part to do with the gap between brilliant physical performance and the banality (the ‘press-release tone’) of talking about it. Sports memoirs should, he writes, ‘let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semidivine, to share with us the secret and so both reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference … to give us the (we want, expect, only one, the master narrative, the key) Story.’ In this and many other respects, String Theory, at least, does not fail.
Melanie White is a London-based writer and critic, and editor of Shooter Literary Magazine (