A Late-August Lob

Cody Walker
August 25, 2010
Comments 11

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.”


11 thoughts on “A Late-August Lob

  1. Cody, You may enjoy serving up Andre Agassi’s “OPEN”. I absolutely loved this book, particularly listening to the unabridged audio version on CD. While I am telling everyone about the book, letting them know it is NOT just for tennis players, I do think those of us who grew up playing tennis have a special connection with it. — Sally

  2. Don’t forget Humbert Humbert’s fascination with Lolita’s tennis form. Nabokov’s focus on the aesthetics of tennis are stunning.

  3. My favorite literary tennis player is Guy Haines from “Strangers on a Train” (originally an architect in Patricia Highsmith’s novel, but apparently changed to an amateur tennis player for Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation so audiences could get a peek at Farley Granger’s gams). Don’t know if Highsmith, or Raymond Chandler or Ben Hecht, both of whom worked on the screenplay, were tennis players, but it’s doubtful Hitch was (“Look at that fat bastard trying to get out of his car!” Chandler remarked of the director; Chandler was subsequently dismissed).

  4. Ashbery’s “Tennis Court Oath” doesn’t make the bar? Sure, it’s about a treaty in the French Revolution instead of the game, and sure, it’s not actually about a treaty in the French Revolution (“I thought going down to mail this / of the kettle you jabbered as easily in the yard”), but: How can this not be a nod to McEnroe’s complaints while playing at Wimbledon?

    When you read it was sincere the coasts
    stammered with unintentional villages the
    horse strains fatigued I guess…the calls…
    I worry

  5. Sean, you’re pretty much the Andre Agassi of blog-post returns. Many thanks! I haven’t read _The Spectator Bird_ or _Cocaine Nights_ — but I will, I will. And yes, Shakespeare definitely played with the net up. And didn’t take practice serves. And spotted his opponents five games at the start of each set.

    OK, enough virtual rallying. Let’s play for real, on Thursday.

  6. You’re right about _Infinite Jest_, Cody, but how about this for a return? I’d suggest that the finest novel-writing tennis player (and tennis-playing novelist) was certainly Wallace Stegner. Take, for instance, the set-piece scene in _The Spectator Bird_– tennis written by a life-long player of the game.

    Perhaps the unlikeliest tennis-playing novelist (and novel-writing tennis player) is J.G. Ballard– a theme which takes center court in _Cocaine Nights_.

    But I’m thinking all this assumes that Shakespeare didn’t play tennis, right? I’m thinking, here, of your call for the “Bard of the Overhead.” I mean, tennis does turn up in _Henry V_… in what must be the first political serve and volley in literature, when the Dauphin sends the young king a box of balls for what was then called “Real Tennis”– that is, the royal game. IF the Bard of Avon played, you’d have to think that a guy who could write sonnets with so much facility would definitely leave the net up.

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