In String Theory, a slim compilation of the five short essays he wrote about tennis from 1991 to 2006, one time Juniors tennis player of note, the late novelist David Foster Wallace, gets down to the central drama of the game since its beginnings–stylistic adaptivity–only in the last paragraphs of his last essay, “Federer Both Flesh and Not.” These few pages, echoing several earlier analyses by others of the continuing tennis drama in past times and constituting a latest act in that drama, must be the finest summary so far of how the Tennis Stage Play is playing out in the early twenty-first century. Foster loves tennis for all the deep reasons, but his love is tempered by more than a little realism. “I submit,” he says, “that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is” but understands that competition is at the heart of the game and that a triumphant beauty of winning play is never more than an enduring hope of tennis lovers.
Especially in our day, outside factors such as high-tech composite rackets with their lighter weight and larger (and more forgiving) faces together with players’ improved nutrition and training have thrown into crisis the traditional aesthetic of tennis, an aesthetic which began as a graceful, flowing blend of power and finesse played with wooden rackets with smaller and more exacting areas for striking the ball: now has come a new “Power Baseline Game” of bigger and stronger players hanging around the backcourt and, wielding their new and bigger rackets, relying on brute strength and unvaried aggression to impart an unprecedented and extreme topspin on ground strokes, the heavy rotation driving the ball down to permit much sharper angles for attacking shots than ever. In its beginning, the new game threatened to strip from tennis many of its traditional subtleties that have created so much of its beauty.
Since the 1920s and Tilden, Johnston, Cochet and Lacoste, tennis style-of-play has always turned on a duel between the strategy and tactics of reliance on a baseline game of ground strokes–moving your opponent around with drives into the corners and sharply angled cross court shots–and the “serve-and-volley” style which espouses the Big Serve and, behind it, getting to the net as soon and as often as possible to shorten rallies by exploiting the improved geometry in the forecourt for the attacker who can cut off the opponent’s drives with sharply angled volleys.
Here is Wallace at his best, writing truly about the stylistic drama at the heart of tennis as seen in our time, in words composed in 2006:
So the basic formula here is that the composite rackets enable topspin, which in turn enables groundstrokes vastly faster and harder than twenty years ago–it’s common now to see male pros pulled up off the ground and halfway around in the air by the force of their strokes…. Both Borg and Connors played specialized versions of the classic baseline game which had evolved as a counterforce to the even more classic serve-and-volley game, which was itself the dominant form of men’s power tennis for decades, and of which John McEnroe was the greatest modern exponent. …McEnroe toppled Borg and then more or less ruled the men’s game until the appearance, around the mid-1980s, of (a) modern composite rackets and (b) Ivan Lendl, who played with an early form of composite and was the true progenitor of power baseline tennis.
…The generic power-baseline game is not boring–certainly not compared with the two-second points of old time serve-and-volley or the moonball tedium of classic baseline attrition. But it is somewhat static and limited; it is not, as pundits have publicly feared for years, the evolutionary endpoint of tennis. The player who’s shown this to be true is Roger Federer. And he’s shown it from within the modern game. …The Swiss has every bit of Lendl’s and Agassi’s pace on his groundstrokes, and leaves the ground when he swings, and can out-hit even Nadal from the backcourt. …(But) there’s also (Federer’s) intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace–all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played. …In the same way that Lendl drove home his own lesson, Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable. …Genius (such as Federer’s) 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.
A tragic figure, Wallace passed by his own hand in 2008. He would probably have been edified to learn from John McEnroe’s tennis memoir, You Cannot Be Serious, that the stylistic drama at the heart of tennis played out most uncannily in the 1980s when Lendl showed up with his power baseline game to challenge McEnroe’s serve-and-volley game: After Lendl had begun to beat McEnroe consistently, Don Budge, the great champion of the 1930s and 40s, whispered in McEnroe’s ear that he should take away the punishing angles afforded the top-spinning Lendl with his new composite racket by a simple tactic: chip medium speed approach shots down the middle of the court and close fast to the net. Now: If you get out a pencil and paper and outline a tennis court, you’ll see Lendl’s ensuing problem: cross court passing shots become almost implausible, especially against a great volleyer like McEnroe. McEnroe thus turned the tide against Lendl.
Wallace no doubt would have quickly seen two more important acts in the stylistic drama that were staged in the past few years. The cast here is Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. In scene one, lefthander Nadal’s relentless heavy topspin forehands to the aging Federer’s backhand expose perhaps the one weakness in the Swiss–high backhand strokes–and tennis purists bemoan that Federer, rescuer of beautiful tennis in the power baseline era, is now losing nearly always to Nadal, an inelegant nemesis with an ugly style, and that Nadal’s ascent to the Number One ranking is dooming beautiful tennis. Enter Djokovic with lovely forehand and backhand drives which take Nadal’s heavy spinning moonball drives on the rise and pound them back relentlessly, destroying Nadal’s reliance on extreme topspin. Djokovic refines the power baseline style–it becomes gracefully executed and beautiful to see. He replaces Nadal as Number One.
In every tennis era, this story can be told in one or another version. Here is Bobby Riggs writing in 1949 in a marvelous little tennis memoir, Tennis Is My Racket, about his battles in 1947 and well before Open Tennis with the great Jack Kramer, one of the premiere serve-and-volley stylists, on their long global pro tour when Riggs was world pro champion and Kramer was the foremost amateur.
I was counting on Kramer figuring me for a baseliner, a backcourt player who would be extremely reluctant to take the net. I knew he would discount my serve as an offensive weapon. So I made up my mind to get up to the net before he could whenever possible, to serve deceptively and hard, and to watch carefully for that wide-breaking serve of his.
After our first six or seven matches, Jack began to realize that in rallying with me from the baseline, he was doing what I wanted, giving me a chance to neutralize his power….So he began to learn to close in on the net rapidly.
With his serve forcing me to keep playing the ball defensively, Jack came in to the net like a rapier. I never realized he was so fast on his feet….In an effort to stand him off, I began to serve so hard that I got tired. Then he began to step in on my second serve. After ten matches or so, he knew just about where I would hit it….
Things went on like that until we had each won fourteen matches…. The series took another sharp turn. …Jack decided he would altogether discard defensive tactics. And that marked the beginning of the end for me. …From that point Jack had the tour wrapped up in cellophane. He just poured it on harder and harder, and there wasn’t anything I could do but fight back stubbornly–and take it.
Wallace’s other four pieces on tennis in String Theory, which stray far from the essential tennis drama, range from superb to disappointing. “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open” strikes as basically a literary project rather than a piece on tennis. It is an impressionistic essay about a busy day in 1996 at the U.S. Open, decorated with fulsome descriptions of the court, stadium, sociology of the seating and the like. “Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry” profiles a so-so player on the professional men’s tour, marveling that the aforesaid Joyce is a considerable athlete with notable talent who will never challenge the top players. Tournament draws must be filled out and for the tennis drama to be enacted there must be competitors, so writing about lesser players has its place. But for the piece on Joyce, you would have expected more on the Tennis Dream than is forthcoming. In “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace is hilarious in panning her awful Carefully Correct memoir and then goes on to regret that the prodigious Austin, truly a victim of bad luck in her short-lived tennis career, did not give us an inspiring story of herself as heroic victim. He also worries why he and many others keep on buying sports stars’ memoirs when you know they are going to be just like Austin’s. But you have to wonder: Is there much choice between the Correct and that literary plague of our day, Victim Lit?
However, the right choice about Wallace’s own memoir about his youth in Illinois in the 1980s as a tennis player in the Boys and Juniors divisions, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” is to make sure you read it. He beautifully remembers playing tennis as a ranked Junior in the windswept Midwest, writing what I believe must be the only such regional account. As West Virginia Boys and Juniors champion and prep and collegiate player in the 1950s and 60s who was rudely forced to give up the Tennis Dream in the face of the few Really Talented up on those Higher Levels, I found Wallace’s reminiscences all-too-familiar, spot on, touching and finally bracing.
The game is the thing, and Wallace loved the game.