The US Open begins next week. No, not the golf version, with its multiple pathologies — but tennis, the sport I once loved so much that I would wake up 45 minutes before breakfast and go practice against the side of a Maryland National Bank. That was 1978: I was eleven years old, and I wanted to be Borg, or Vilas, or McEnroe. These days I play more like Richie Tenenbaum. Still, I took the court earlier this evening, battling a couple of new friends, a bad shoulder, and a light rain. On the drive home, I started wondering why tennis plays such a small role in the literary arts. Where, oh where, is the Bard of the Overhead? (Not here, alas.) Frost, of course, famously used a figure drawn from tennis when dismissing free verse. Less well known is Robert Francis’s return of serve: “There are other games than tennis that can be played on a tennis court, games in which a net would be irrelevant and even a hindrance, yet games fully as exacting as tennis.” But aside from this short rally by the two Roberts, the court is open. (Google “famous tennis poems” and the search engine looks at you like you’re crazy.) Vilas fancied himself a poet, as chronicled in a delightfully weird 1978 People profile. When his countryman Borges was asked what he thought of Vilas’s verses, the blind septuagenarian replied, “Just imagine me playing tennis.”
But at least Vilas tried to write. The sinister Nadal (it’s a joke; I love Nadal) won’t even try to read:
At this point you’re probably banging your racquet against your computer screen and screaming, “What about David Foster Wallace?” (If you add, “Answer my QUESTION; the question, jerk!” — well, that’s within your rights.) Wallace was — terrible, always, that “was” — the great exception: the ace writer who took tennis seriously. Last week, watching a match between Clijsters and Sharapova, I was stunned to see that Michael Joyce is now coaching the Russian champion. Michael Joyce! From Wallace’s Esquire essay! And now a full-grown man! (Wallace, in 1996: “Michael Joyce in close-up, viewed eating supper or riding in a courtesy car, looks slighter and younger than he does on-court. Close-up, he looks his age, which to me is basically that of a fetus.”) “Wish him well,” the piece memorably ends — which is what we should have wished harder for Wallace.
The finest (and funniest) collisions of tennis and literature occur in Infinite Jest. Here’s Wallace, serving out the set:
The sports portion of WETA’s broadcast is mostly just reporting the outcomes and scores of whatever competitive events the E.T.A. squads have been in since the last broadcast. Troeltsch, who approaches his twice-week duties with all possible verve, will say he feels like the hardest thing about his intercom-broadcasts is keeping things from getting repetitive as he goes through long lists of who beat whom and by how much. His quest for synonyms for beat and got beat by is never-ending and serious and a continual source of irritation to his friends. . . .
“John Wayne at A-1 18’s beat Port Washington’s Bob Francis of Great Neck, New York, 6-0, 6-2,” Troeltsch says, “while A-2 Singles’ Hal Incandenza defeated Craig Burda of Vivian Park, Utah, 6-2, 6-1; and while A-3 K.D. Coyle went down in a hard-fought loss to Port Wash’s Shelby van der Merwe of Hempstead, Long Island 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, A-4 Trevor ‘The Axhandle’ Axford crushed P.W.’s Tapio Martti out of Sonora, Mexico, 7-5, 6-2.”
And so on. By the time it’s down to Boys A-14’s, Troeltsch’s delivery gets terser even as his attempts at verbiform variety tend to have gotten more lurid, e.g.: “LaMont Chu disembowelled Charles Pospisilova 6-3, 6-2; Jeff Penn was on Nate Millis-Johnson like a duck on a Junebug 6-4, 6-7, 6-0; Peter Beak spread Ville Dillard on a cracker like some sort of hors d’oeuvre and bit down 6-4, 7-6, while 14’s A-4 Idris Arslanian ground his heel into the neck of David Wiere 6-1, 6-4 and P.W.’s 5-man R. Greg Chubb had to be just about carried off over somebody’s shoulder after Todd Possalthwaite moonballed him into a narcoleptic coma 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. . . .”
“14’s A-3 Felicity Zweig went absolutely SACPOP on P.W.’s Kiki Pfefferblit 7-6, 6-1, while Gretchen Holt made P.W.’s Tammi Taylor-Bing sorry her parents were ever even in the same room together 6-0, 6-3. At 5, Ann Kittenplan grimaced and flexed her way to a 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 win over Paisley Steinkamp, right next to where Jolene Criess at 6 was doing to P.W.’s Mona Ghent what a quality boot can do to a toadstool, 2 and 2.”