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Ever since I discovered that David Foster Wallace’s tennis articles have been compiled into one book, I have wanted to read it. What more can one want – one of the great contemporary writers writing on one of my favourite sports? What can be better? I finally got the book a few days back and read it.

String Theory‘ is a compilation of David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis. It is a slim book at 138 pages. (If we include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s introduction, it is 145 pages.) The book has five essays. The first one ‘Derivative Sport at Tornado Alley‘ is autobiographical. In that essay David Foster Wallace writes about how he got into tennis, how he was good at it at the junior level, how the tornado weather of his hometown in Illinois influenced his tennis game, and how his game didn’t improve as he got older and how he moved away from tennis to mathematics and creative writing.

The second essay ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart‘ is about Tracy Austin’s memoir ‘Beyond Center Court‘. In this essay, Wallace reviews Austin’s memoir. He is not impressed by it – he calls it ‘this breathtakingly insipid autobiography’ and quotes excerpts from it to prove his point. If it had ended there, it would have been just a negative review of a ghosted autobiography. What makes the essay great is what Wallace does after that. He asks why a genius player like Tracy Austin – who won her first professional event when she was 14, won her first grand slam when she was 16, and was World No.1 when she was 17 – why a player like this who played sublime tennis, can’t reproduce those tennis skills on the written page. He investigates this and it is incredibly beautiful and insightful to read. On the whole, the essay is a negative review of a book, but it is one of the finest, most beautiful negative reviews of a book ever written. David Foster Wallace has elevated book reviewing to an art form here and I was so thrilled and so jealous to read it. I wish I could write like this.

The third essay ‘Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness‘ (in addition to having a long title, it was also the longest essay in the book, at around 45 pages) is about Michael Joyce, the tennis player. Michael Joyce was a tennis player who was active in the 1990s. He later became Maria Sharapova’s coach. David Foster Wallace goes to watch the Canadian Open and spends time with Michael Joyce and follows his progress closely through the draw. He offers his thoughts on Joyce’s game, how it compares with other top tennis professionals of that time, and investigates what is the difference between the game of a top 100 player like Joyce, another player who has to routinely play in the qualifiers to reach the main draw, and a top ranked player like Agassi or Sampras. When I was younger, I mostly followed only the top players, but as I have got older, my favourite players have tended to be those who are not really top-ranked – I have tended to support the journeyman / journeywoman player more. Whenever my favourite player upsets a seeded player, I am thrilled and it feels like Christmas for me. So, when I read this essay, it resonated with me deeply.

The fourth essay, ‘Democracy and Commerce at the U.S.Open‘ is about what the title says. It was interesting, but it read more like a journalistic piece for the newspaper.

The fifth and last essay in the collection, ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not‘, is David Foster Wallace’s most famous essay on tennis. In it, he waxes eloquent on Roger Federer, the Swiss great, and investigates what are the roots of his genius. One would expect a fan’s raving account, but this essay is definitely not that – Wallace elevates the gushing essay to art form, and it ends with one of my most favourite lines in the book. The book has an introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan which is a beautiful essay on its own right.

I loved ‘String Theory‘. I have read excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s works before, but this was the first time I was reading a full-fledged book. Wallace is a master in the art of essay writing. He weaves together a delightful sport with exquisite prose and creates a beautiful work of art. His writing style is natural and not contrived, the beautiful passages are not artificially sculpted but flow naturally. I think this is how intelligent, non-pretensive writing looks like. Reading the essays in the book gave me a lot of pleasure and delight. I read my favourite, beautiful passages again and again. The earlier essays in the book have minimal footnotes, but the later essays have lots of footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes flow into more than half the page. If you find footnotes distracting, you will find those pages annoying, but if you are a footnote lover like me, you will love it. One of my friends said that she wished that David Foster Wallace had been around to comment on Roger Federer’s comeback during the 2017 Australian Open. That would have been a great essay. I also feel it would be interesting to read what he thought about Djokovic and Nadal. It is sad that we will never know.

String Theory‘ is one of the finest books written on tennis or on any sport. Tennis is famous for ghosted autobiographies that famous players come out with, which sell like hot cakes. That is the single, most popular genre in tennis writing. Occasionally, there might be a big tennis book, which has a lot of pictures, or a book which talks about one of the famous matches. Books like David Foster Wallace’s, are rare. I haven’t seen one before. So I am very happy and glad that this exists. I wish Wallace had written more tennis essays. I wish this book was 500 pages long. But we have to take what we get. And I will take this.

If you are a tennis fan, or even an essay fan, this book is a must read.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Beauty of Sport

“Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we…revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or the best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they’re beautiful : Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man…Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.”

What Might Have Been

“The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art – what the tragic-savvy Greeks would have called her technÄ“, the state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves – was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit. This memoir could have been about both the seductive immortality of competitive success and the less seductive but way more significant fragility and impermanence of all the competitive venues in which mortal humans chase immortality.”

On Michael Joyce

“If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably think you have some idea of how hard a game it is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn’t. And television doesn’t really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do – how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times, right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man, who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot-square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something over 90% of the time. And this is the world’s 79th-best player, one who has to play the Montreal Qualies.”

“Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a figure of enduring and paradoxical fascination for me. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and his self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art – something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain or exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.”

On Beauty in Sport

“Beauty is not a goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex and cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

On Roger Federer

“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform – and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

Have you read David Foster Wallace’sString Theory‘? What do you think about it?

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