This Sporting Life: Tennis as Metaphorical Experience

This Sporting Life: Tennis as Metaphorical Experience
An avatar of David Foster Wallace plays tennis
An avatar of David Foster Wallace plays tennis. Image courtesy of Nick Maniatis, via

Marlon Brando knew what the Beats know and what the great tennis player knows, son: learn to do nothing, with your whole head and body, and everything will be done by what’s around you.

—James O. Incandenza Sr. to his son, James O. Incandenza Jr. in Infinite Jest.[1]

There are four dates that are important for this piece of writing: four dates that you should bear in mind.

Right now, it’s 1:00, Saturday, July 22, 1995, on the Stadium Court of the Stade Jarry tennis complex in Montreal. [2]

This is the first.

The second is the year 1996, when two events of note occur. David Foster Wallace publishes Infinite Jest, which is described by some as Pynchon-esque and others as DeLillo-esque and by others such as myself in 2014 as esque-esque. We’re the ones who have never finished Gravity’s Rainbow or Underworld but find it interesting all the same that Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace could be such good friends. The book is a work of mad, bad, blackly comic genius. It’s also obsessed with tennis. [3]

The second important event of the second important date, 1996, is that Richard Krajicek wins Wimbledon, beating an American named MaliVai Washington in the final. [4]

Foster Wallace had watched both finalists during that week at the end of July 1995. Krajicek was,

The top seed this weekend…a six-foot-five Dutchman who wears a tiny white billed hat in the sun and rushes the net like it owes him money and in general plays like a rabid crane. Both his knees are bandaged. [5]

And Washington?

From twenty yards away, he looks less like a human being than like a Michelangelo anatomy sketch: his upper body the V of serious of serious weight lifting, his leg muscles standing out even in repose, his biceps little cannonballs of fierce-looking veins.

Prescience is its own sort of genius. Wimbledon 1996 would be the height of MaliVai Washington’s career, and of Krajicek’s, too. Prescience of an uncommon kind, to catch each and both just before the apex of the serve.

Were you paying attention to the state of Krajicek’s knees? In Infinite Jest, James O. Incandenza’s father, a promising junior tennis player himself, ruins his own by slipping and sliding in high farcical fashion as he strains and bends to retrieve an impossible ball.

All it takes is a second, you’re thinking, Jim: the body betrays you and down you go, on your knees, sliding on sandpaper court.

There are two kinds of betrayal for a sportsman. One is as described above: the sudden shattering of a bone or the ripping of a tendon that splinters the dream for good. The other is the more amateur type of slow, lingering let-down experienced by David Foster Wallace himself.

I have played against men who were on a whole different, higher plateau than I, and I have understood on the deepest and most humbling level the impossibility of beating them, of “solving their game”. [6]

James O. Incandenza of Infinite Jest is tipped by his father, he of the ruined knees, for greatness. Instead he becomes merely good – and retreats to the smaller, more meaningful and infinitely more controllable worlds of academia and film. Tennis, whether fictional or real, demands at its highest level the vapidity of athletic genius: movements that occur long before the neuroses of thought.

The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then it can really be done only unconsciously, i.e., by fusing talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought. [7]

Various experts in these matters have described tennis through the metaphor of conversation. Of course, the best kind of conversation is unforced and happens  largely unconsciously. Rafael Nadal’s game seems more like a controlled domestic argument, where every word is carefully chosen to hurt – and to win. “Pistol” Pete Sampras fired out blunt phrases from the far end of the court, that brooked no reply. Andy Murray’s game, and his accompanying conversation, seems to be with himself and no other, yet it’s transmitted to the wider world through the dual loudspeakers of microphone and fame. Of these, only Sampras can truly lay claim to the unconscious. [8]

The third date is the year 1998. There are three events to note here. The first is that one Roger Federer turns professional. The second is that he wins the Boys’ Singles and Boys’ Doubles at Wimbledon. The third comes with Pete Sampras defeating Goran Ivanisevic in the Men’s Singles final. Ivanisevic was present in Montreal in July 1995: “Number six in the world but a notorious flakeroo who supposedly ‘forgot to enter till a week ago'”. “Flakeroos” aren’t supposed to succeed at the top of professional sport. The flake’s role is to get tantalizingly close and then fail, to hand victory to the steely-eyed phenom across the net.

“How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away,” narrates Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest. Only Goran ran and came back, gloriously and gloriously unexpectedly in the summer of 2001. As a wildcard he won Wimbledon, busting the dreams of the British hope Tim Henman along the way- Tim, whose conversation had always been interesting enough to get him to semi-finals but too self-consciously nice to get him any further. [9]

In 2006, eight years after turning professional, Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal in four sets to win his fourth Wimbledon championship, in a contest described by David Foster Wallace as “war versus love”.

“For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s. You too may find them so, in which case Spain’s mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man’s man for you…” [10]

Make tennis out of love; love out of tennis. In the words of Hal Incandenza: “Please make no extramural friends. Discourage advances from outside the circuit. Turn down dates.” To be a sporting great is not to deny the existence of love but to express it in a tumult of muscles and striking and ripped forehands and aft. There is certainly love in Nadal – it’s just of the more brutal, harder-to-love kind. Federer is both easy and hard to love, because elegance for the inelegant is astounding and deeply galling.

There is one more year-  a fifth – to add. In July 2008, Rafael Nadal –  “he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exaltation” – bested Federer in perhaps the greatest Wimbledon final of them all. On the 8th of September 2008, Federer won the US Open from Andy Murray. [11] Four days later, David Foster Wallace took his own life.

[1] A quirk of tennis, uncommon to perhaps any other sport.

[2] David Foster Wallace, ‘The String Theory’, Esquire Magazine, July 1996.

[3] The position of the Canadian Michael T. Joyce, the subject of ‘The String Theory’, on Québécois nationalism, the novel’s other great subject, is unclear.

[4] This was the only Grand Slam final either would reach. Krajicek in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

[5] “Rabid crane” is a phrase that fits well to describe the Dutch trend of producing very tall, very gangly cyclists.

[6] Foster Wallace was ranked as a junior in the USTA’s Western region. He described himself in the essay ‘Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley’ thus: “Between the ages of twelve and fifteen I was a near-great junior tennis player”.

[7] ‘The String Theory’.

[8] One can only imagine the conversation Serena Williams had with herself as she hid in her bathroom to avoid a drug test on 16th June 2009.

[9] It’s said that the rain breaks got to Tim during that semi-final. This is hogwash. Tim got to Tim – seeing potential greatness in the locker room mirror, he fled. Or so I would like to believe.

[10] Goran was also “martial” but in a more chaotic, more loveable way. Achilles is hard to love; Patroclus isn’t.

[11] “I came up against, in my opinion, the best player ever to play the game” were Murray’s words in defeat.

Teddy Cutler

About Teddy Cutler

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

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