13 Tennis Books That Weren’t Written by David Foster Wallace
A guide to U.S. Open reading that’s not the same old stuff by and about white men
Every year, at the start of the U.S. Open—the final grand slam of the year, held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens—newspapers and magazines and the internet recommend books about tennis. But year after year, the same white male writers appear on those lists: David Foster Wallace, Martin Amis, John McPhee, Vladimir Nabokov.
I adore Wallace’s seminal essay, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” first published in the New York Times Magazine and anthologized in String Theory. I think McPhee’s Levels of the Game, an account of the 1968 match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at Forest Hills, is a classic. But I often long for tennis writing that’s a little less dude-bro, you know? If you’re looking for more of a Serena Williams vibe than a John McEnroe, here are 13 books — narrative nonfiction, memoir, mystery, romance, picture book — to read during the tournament.
1. Days of Grace by Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad
Days of Grace traces the final years of this champion’s life — Arthur Ashe was the first Black man to win singles’ titles at Wimbledon, the French Open and the U.S. Open — and reflects on sports, race, patriotism, family, and terminal illness. Co-written with Arnold Rampersad, who “defined the field of African-American literary biography” and is known for his works on Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Jackie Robinson among others, Days of Grace is a courageous and honest narrative by an outstanding human being.
2. Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Brett Helquist
I have a five-year-old with an interest in tennis — she watches Grand Slam tennis with me, and took her first lessons this summer — and she loves this one, with its brilliant acrylic-and-oil illustrations. Not only is this picture book detailed and informative, but it also covers both Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s on-court rivalry and their off-court friendship.
3. A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match that Leveled the Game by Selena Roberts
In this journalistic account, New York Times columnist Roberts draws connections from 1973’s Battle of the Sexes, a “spectacle” between washed-up champion Bobby Riggs and tennis legend and advocate for gender equality Billie Jean King, to the rise of women’s sports since that match.
4. The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese
This moving memoir is about a relationship between two men who are deeply hurting: Verghese, a physician whose marriage has unraveled, and David, a student on his rotation who is a former professional tennis player from Australia and battling drug and alcohol addiction. The pair begin a tennis ritual and find true friendship and safety in a sport they love.
5. Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer
The central narrative of this surreal novel by an award-winning Mexican writer is a fictional 16th-century tennis match played between the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio. The ball is made from the hair of King Henry VIII’s beheaded wife, Anne Boleyn. Sudden Death not only tells the history of tennis, but also reimagines the Spanish colonization of the Americas; it is a brilliant and bold book.
6. 40 Love by Madeleine Wickham
I admit: I am a big fan of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, having read the first two while stranded on the tarmac at Beijing Capital International Airport for nine hours during an unexpected snowstorm. In 40 Love, Kinsella—writing as Madeline Wickham—skewers the nouveau riche in a comedy of manners about a weekend “tennis party” in the English countryside.
7. The Tennis Player from Bermuda by Fiona Hodgkin
In this historical fiction novel written as memoir, “Fiona Hodgkin,” the nom de plume of an American writer, tells the story of her brief but eventful career as an amateur tennis player in the early 1960s. Bermudian teenager Hodgkin dreams of playing in the Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club in Wimbledon, and finally gets her chance when a telegram (!) arrives inviting her to play. This light read is well-researched, and full of terms and techniques and historical references.
8. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
This isn’t a tennis book, per se, but chapter two of this National Book Award finalist is a brilliant and arresting poetic meditation on tennis’ GOAT (greatest of all time), Serena Williams, and Black excellence in tennis—including racist public critiques of Williams’ body, her confidence, and even expressions of her joy. A companion New York Times Magazine piece is also a must-read.
9. Sudden Death by Rita Mae Brown
The famed feminist screenwriter Rita Mae Brown was Martina Navratilova’s ex-lover, and this novel is a total roman à clef. According to Brown, speaking to the Washington Post in 1981, “She just walked out on me.” The book follows the romance of Argentinian rising tennis star, Carmen Semana, and her devoted partner, professor Harriet Rawls, from the French Open to Wimbledon, and finds its emotional center when Susan Reilly, Carmen’s arch-rival and former lover, leaks word of Carmen’s relationship with Harriet to the press.
10. The Total Zone (plus Breaking Point and Killer Instinct) by Martina Navratilova and Liz Nickles
This trio of mystery novels stars retired tennis professional Jordan Myles, who solves a bevy of unbelievable murders at Wimbledon (Total Zone), the French Open (Breaking Point) and at a host of tournaments in the United States (Killer Instinct). Admittedly, the pacing is meh and the plots are zany, but the trilogy does reveal saucy details about secrets and sleaze on the women’s tour from one of the game’s legends.
11. The Love Game: Being the Life Story of Marcelle Penrose by Suzanne Lenglen
Lenglen was the diva of her day, and won 31 titles between 1914 and 1926. Her Edith Wharton-esque novel, set on the French Riviera, tells of the machinations of matches and match-making among traditional Victorian bourgeois woman. This entertaining novel features tennis, but also spurned proposals, engineered meetings, arranged marriages, and unrequited love; in Lenglen’s words, it is all “a great game.”
12. Tennis Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Another children’s book, Tennis Shoes, one of the “Shoes” collection of adventures (Ballet Shoes, Theater Shoes, Circus Shoes, etc.), follows the hijinks of four red-headed Heath children, whose father and grandfather were top players, on their quest to win “a championship which no one of [their] age has ever won before.” It is a charming book about family and perseverance, and very funny if didactic in parts.
13. Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon by Elizabeth Wilson.
In this cursory history of tennis’ transformation from “provocative” pastime for “dandies” and women who felt constricted by Victorian mores to corporatized global sport, fashion writer and novelist, Elizabeth Wilson, examines the wider cultural landscape of tennis, rather than its point-by-point history and includes a solid account of modern day tennis’ many injustices — elitism, sexism and racism.