Levels of the Game (1969), by John McPhee


Levels of the Game, a much ballyhooed book ostensibly about a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at Forest Hills in 1968, is painfully a dated book of those times, that period when novelist Truman Capote invented the true life novel and gave us his enduring masterpiece, In Cold Blood, and too many imitative journalists such as Norman Mailer, would-be fiction writers, mostly tried to cast the major human drama as political. From his murderous outpost in Kansas, Capote steadfastly asked of us the old fearsome question, Man or Beast? Too many of the other New Journalists of that day asked merely, Democrat or Republican?

McPhee is among the latter writers. His book chronicles the point-by-point drama of the Ashe-Graebner match, interrupted at many points with the personal sociocultural histories of the two players. In sum: McPhee would have it that there is Republican tennis and Democrat tennis. Ashe, the first African American male to make it in big-time tennis, plays a “liberal” game. Graebner, white and of the middle class, a man who looks uncannily like Clark Kent, plays a “conservative” game. It seems a forced comparison: Graebner was a player of considerable power who “hit out”–“went for it”–an instinctive play that hardly fits “conservative.” Yet here is Ashe himself, responding no doubt (and I suspect carefully) to McPhee’s pet thematic question, and trying his best to make Graebner fit a Procrustean bed:

“There is not much variety in Clark’s game. It is steady, accurate and conservative. He makes few errors. He plays stiff, compact, Republican tennis. He’s a damned smart player, a good thinker, but not a limber and flexible thinker. …(He has) a better forehand (than I)–more touch, more power. His forehand is a hell of a weapon.”

Yes, an inconvenient forehand. Graebner ripped that apolitical shot. Certainly if one must label that stroke, “liberal” is the better fit.  Certainly you don’t think of Taft or Paul Ryan while you are recalling Graebner’s forehand drives streaking down the sideline.

The writer’s  problem here is to respect the mysterious. Failure to do so leads inevitably to oversimplification. For example, McPhee assures us that behind every notable tennis player–and predominantly this means the player’s style of play–stands one man (or woman). In Ashe’s case, we are told, it is his father. And of course tennis literature includes many examples of people having an early influence on champions–Connors’s mother, Agassi’s father, one of Nadal’s uncles, and so on–but you don’t develop your style from one source: I was West Virginia Boys amd Juniors champion in the 50s and played college varsity tennis and can report that as you grow up in the game and play at higher and higher levels, you model different shots after those of different players you admire. And certainly you play within your psychophysiology, not your politics. From its beginnings in country clubs and wealthy enclaves, tennis has always seen at any of its moments a considerable diversity of styles, ranging from steady backcourt play to aggressive serve-and-volley tactics, albeit the players mostly had similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

The mysterious, probably ever unutterable sources of tennis styles are wisely referred to indirectly. The best tennis literature shows a respect for the inspiration-of-play that eludes full analysis. You are left acknowledging that McPhee writes well but with a self-defeating ambition in his sociological bent. The match itself isn’t all that interesting in the history of tennis, the two players are not among the greatest players of the game, and I suspect that the cheerleaders of Levels of the Game–there have been more than a few–are less interested in the tennis than in the simplistic analogies infecting much New Journalism.

Back in the day of Levels of the Game, my wife and I visited Bermuda and among many vacation plans intended to attend an exhibition tennis match to be played there between Ashe and Graebner. Heavy winds caused the match to be cancelled. I hadn’t thought of this again until a friend passed along McPhee’s book.

Out of sight, out of mind.