In D.T. Max’s bestselling biography on him, Every Love is a Ghost Story, which is now available in paperback, Max writes of Wallace’s days playing for his Urbana, Illinois high school team, and how tennis was also his social life. One of my favorite little tidbits from the biography is where he talks about how the Infinite Jest writer’s team “fashioned an outsider image for themselves, in cutoff T-shirts, bandanas, and colored shoelaces in an era when tennis players were still expected to wear white — they were the tennis-playing toughs from a big public high school even if at that school they were the sissies who played tennis.” Maybe Wallace’s personal connection to the sport resonated in his writing, and that’s why I find myself so drawn to his Federer piece, as well as his essay on the former player Michael T. Joyce. His love of the sport combined with his sheer brilliance helped make his pieces on tennis as memorable as any of his other nonfiction work.
But just how great was Wallace’s writing on tennis? Where does it rank? Does he have any contemporaries in modern literature that could write a great novel and make an entire paragraph on topspin worth analyzing? Updike played tennis, but his writing on the sport is generally limited, even though his author photo for Rabbit Redux had him showing off his serve:
The New York Times Magazine, which has published its fair share of great tennis pieces (including Wallace’s Federer piece), is the best place to look for answers as to exactly how influential Wallace’s tennis writing truly remains, as Wallace’s fingerprints are all over the weekly magazine’s sporadic tennis coverage. See John Jeremiah Sullivan’s —a writer who has been compared to Wallace more than a few times — Times Magazine piece on Venus and Serena Williams, or read last weekend’s look at the twilight of a great career in “Roger Federer Can Still Get His Game Face On” by Michael Steinberger and try not to compare it to Wallace’s own appreciation of the tennis legend while he was in his prime. At least view it as a proper NYT Magazine bookend to “Federer as Religious Experience.” The Steinberger doesn’t reach Wallace’s level (hardly anything does), but it does finish what Wallace started, essentially, proving all current literary tennis writing exists in a post-Wallace era.