David Foster Wallace and the Literary Traditions of Tennis

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Tennis and literature make great bedfellows. I’m sure there are those that would argue soccer, baseball, or even boxing make better mates with the written word, but baseball’s steroid problem has made it difficult to find much magic in the game. Soccer can be seductive, but I think writers find the fandom (Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs) or sociopolitical angles (Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World) of the game more interesting. Boxing has punched its way into irrelevancy as we await the first great MMA essay. Even professional wrestling has surpassed the sweet science that Ring Lardner and Norman Mailer loved, with writers like The Masked Man (aka David Shoemaker) writing brilliant pieces like the “Dead Wrestler of the Week” entries at Deadspin.

Even though John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker piece on the last game of baseball player Ted Williams, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” generally stands as my favorite piece of sports journalism, I don’t think there is a more intense and word for word perfect essay on any sport than David Foster Wallace’s 2006 profile on Roger Federer, “Federer as Religious Experience.” And taking it another step further, I think it stands as one Wallace’s shining moments in a too-short career filled with great novels and essays, with one line in particular that sums how uniquely inspiring the sport can be: “The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a ‘bloody near-religious experience.’”

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.