What David Foster Wallace Can and Cannot Teach Us About the State of American Men’s Tennis

by Matthew Nolan

As the U.S. Open arrives, so do additional opportunities to lament the current state of American men’s tennis. The Williams sisters have been superstars of the women’s game for years, but we haven’t had a Grand Slam men’s singles champion since Andy Roddick in 2003 and only two Americans currently sit in the top 50, none in the top ten. The Open’s thirteenth seed, the fast-serving 6’ 10” John Isner, has been the most consistent American in the last few years, and he has not yet gotten past a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Would the late David Foster Wallace, perhaps the greatest writer about tennis ever, have joined in the lamentations? It would seem hard to believe.

Infinite Jest cover

August and early September always mark the peak of interest for American tennis fans. The North American hard court season allows us to watch consistent, live tennis for the first time all year during normal waking hours. But this occasion will be punctuated by numerous commentators asking where the next generation of elite male players, in the tradition of John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras, has gone. These grumblings often put blame on the high-profile academies and player development programs, but such blanket criticism doesn’t take into account the complexities of tennis that go beyond elite training, complexities that David Foster Wallace, once a regionally ranked junior player, detailed thoroughly in both nonfiction articles and in one strand of his famously long 1996 novel, Infinite Jest.

Set partly in a fictional Massachusetts tennis academy, Infinite Jest devotes significant time to the young players who spend their days struggling with both their own tennis game and a wide range of other challenges, which often are related to, and manifested in, tennis. In both his fiction and nonfiction, Wallace’s writings about the game point to the small but important variables overlooked in many tennis discussions. He shows that tennis is too subtle and demanding to allow for a formula that ensures elite player development. Blaming the American tennis academies for being unable to churn out superstars seems misguided when the difficulties of the sport are laid out for inspection. For instance, as Wallace wrote in his 2006 Roger Federer appreciation, “In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels.”

“In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels.”

In his 1991 Harper’s article, “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes,”

Wallace examines his own teen psyche as a junior tennis player in the Midwest, and ends up offering evidence of the considerable mental requirements of even junior-level tennis. Mathematically minded, he found solace in many of the strategic aspects of tennis, figuring out the angles (you had to have “the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles”) and the local conditions (“I had gotten so prescient at using surface, sun and gusts that I was regarded as a kind of physical savant, a medicine boy of wind and heat.”) But the weather, just like natural athleticism, injuries, and an opponent, is one of the variables that make tennis a supremely challenging sport. The frustration that he felt as the uncontrollable variables became more and more prevalent in his playing is a pain that can surely be felt by many players, both American and foreign, who struggle to ever equal previous successes. It was a personal affront to Wallace when he felt betrayed “at around fifteen when so many single-minded flailing boys became abruptly mannish and tall.” Just like many gifted tennis players who never achieve their projections, “I began to, very quietly, resent my physical place in the great schema.” This resentment and bitterness, “a kind of slow root-rot,” as Wallace once put it, can be severe enough that it ruins a professional player’s career. It’s no surprise that many professionals — and academies — now employ mental coaches.

Wallace’s insight into elite tennis’s physical requirements also helps explain why becoming an elite tennis player is so difficult. For an article that ran in Esquire in 1996 and was published in a slightly different form in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Wallace traveled to the Canadian Open, in part to profile an up-and-coming American, Michael Joyce. Wallace was quickly drawn into the dedication and effort that the less highly ranked players exhibited. Joyce, then 22, is described as a player who has “an almost ascetic focus.” and “no interests outside of tennis.” With a certain melancholy recognition of his own tennis-playing limits, Wallace comprehends “just how good these professionals are” after witnessing an ordinary practice session between two lower-ranked players. Serious tennis, he argues, “is a kind of art.” Thinking mathematically again, Wallace writes that “no CPU yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange” at this high level of play. But from his descriptions of the intensity and talent of these largely ignored players, it’s possible to understand the elusive gulf between a talented American journeyman and an American superstar.

In a passage that seems to pinpoint an “it factor” required of elite success in ATP tennis, Wallace compares one aspect of then 79th-ranked Michael Joyce’s game to that of eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi. Wallace calls Agassi’s vision “literally one in a billion,” allowing him “to hit his groundstrokes as hard as he can just about every time.” Joyce’s “hand-eye coordination is superlative, in the top 1% of all athletes everywhere,” but he “still has to take some incremental bit of steam off most of his groundstrokes if he wants to direct them.” The subtle yet meaningful differences between professional players in the top 10 and the lower half of the top 100 indicate some of the complexities of elite tennis.

Wallace’s appreciation of the “wholly distinct levels to competitive tennis — levels so distinct that what’s being played is in its essence a whole different game” may have reached its high point when he had the opportunity to witness Roger Federer’s 2006 Wimbledon run. The 16-time Grand Slam champion epitomized, in Wallace’s view, the ideal combination of the many skills needed to dominate the difficult sport. He describes Federer as not only a “first-rate power-baseliner.” There was “also his 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.” Wallace recognizes Federer’s gifts as those that cannot be taught through drilling. Like a superhero, Federer seems “exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws…. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to.”

Wallace’s discerning tennis essays and fiction made it clear that elite tennis players cannot simply be manufactured through training by academies and player development programs.

Wallace’s discerning tennis essays and fiction made it clear that elite tennis players cannot simply be manufactured through training by academies and player development programs. The fact that there are aspects of success that go beyond the academy helps to explain why the current top 20 players in the world represent 14 different countries, and almost all come from different training backgrounds. The recent success of junior male players, like U.S. Open Wild Card Noah Rubin from the training facility run by John McEnroe (another Wallace favorite), will excite Americans, but enthusiasm needs to be tempered with Wallace-ian recognition of the nature of the game. Wallace would not likely have lamented the state of American men’s tennis but instead would have probably sympathized with the ongoing struggles of all players, regardless of national origin. Likening tennis to life itself, a veteran player and coach in Infinite Jest respectfully sums up the game: “It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely.”

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