Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Thoughts On Tennis

The Sporting Life

Some of you might have noticed my absence; after more than five years of unpaid dedication, I was contemplating closing this blog. I have changed my mind. I have decided to continue it, but to no longer write or post anything about politics or social issues, at least not directly, but change direction and write more about other things, including sports, which played a large part in my life, especially during my formative years as an adolescent and young adult. It is in sports that one can easily see the kind of particular and single-minded dedication that one requires to achieve greatness and recognition as a superb athlete. Sports uses a lot of superlatives, it is true, but if it does so, it is within the realm of reason and understanding. The athletes who perform at such a high level seem to be suprahuman. the best of them are “poetry in motion.”

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If you enjoy playing tennis at some level—as I do and have been since I was a teenager (much too late for a serious player)—and great writing on sport, you will enjoy David Foster Wallace’s thoughtful understanding of the game, as is found in String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (May 10, 2016), a Library of America (LOA) imprint.

In it, Wallace [1962–2008] explains what it takes to become a high-ranked player, and why aspiration and hard work is not enough. It takes a combination of dedication and athletic and mental ability and toughness—something so rare that few humans possess these traits. Such explains much about what it takes to be ranked the best in the game.

The Library of America (LOA) writes:
Out today from Library of America, String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis collects all five of the writer’s celebrated tennis essays in one hardcover volume for the first time, along with a new introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
[...]
Several of Wallace’s tennis pieces have attained classic status in the years since they originally appeared, as Esquire Classic acknowledged when it recently devoted an entire podcast to the essay “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” which originally ran in the July 1996 issue of Esquire magazine under the title “The String Theory.” Podcast host David Brancaccio calls it “one of the strangest and most exhilarating pieces of sports journalism I’ve ever seen.” Wallace fans may particularly enjoy Brancaccio’s analysis, with current Esquire editor in chief David Granger, of how many sportswriting conventions Wallace successfully flouts in the work.
The essay in Esquire (”The String Theory;” September 7, 2008) is especially wonderful for what it is not; in it, he gives you a personal perspective, with no pretense of objectivity or distance, which is what people who play sports tend to do when chatting with friends. There is immense pleasure in serving an ace, hitting a winning ground stroke down the line inches from the baseline, or making a well placed top-spin lob over your opponent’s head, or volleying a shot cross-court while your opponent is running in the opposite direction.

Wallace understands all this, not only as an individual who has played the game seriously, but also one who understands its limitations and boundaries, its mathematical precision and its many sacrifices, and its beauty and its grotesqueness. How many amateurs and club players once held unrealistic and unrealized aspirations of tennis greatness (“playing center court at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open”), but quickly realized that they better find another day job? Many I would guess.

Wallace writes not as an individual far-removed from the game’s realities, but as someone who places you inside the mind of a competitive tennis player.  It is you against your opponent, and no team-mates to back you up. No excuses. Tennis is not a game of equality, but of meritocracy. The best man wins, at least in that match; and the top players win often, many times with ease. It is as much a game of the mind as of the heart.

You can listen to the Esquire Classic podcast here.

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For more, go to [LOA]