Sunday, October 30, 2016

String Theory

In fifth grade, we had to do famous people reports.  The kind where you research a person, dress up as that person, and then tell the class all about yourself.  I chose Tracy Austin.  I don't remember why I chose her.  I don't remember what I wore (I can't imagine that it was anything cool or cute like a tennis skirt because I don't think I had yet started playing tennis in 1986 and didn't own a tennis skirt until high school anyway).  I remember making multiple posters with some new markers and those stencils that were popular for posters back in the days before at-home printing and multiple font options were commonplace.  I don't remember what the posters highlighted.  I don't remember a single fact about Austin's life or tennis career except that she was, you know, really good and won a lot.  I do remember being embarrassed when a classmate (a girl who was very quiet and hesitant) gave her presentation on Mother Teresa.  She was talking beautifully about being a little pencil in God's hands and I was talking about ... what?  I don't even remember.  Something to do with Tracy Austin.

This memory (or lack thereof) helped me to appreciate David Foster Wallace's essay:  "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart."  No spoilers about this perfectly-crafted essay, except to say that this gem made me feel better about all I don't remember from my stint as Tracy Austin.  The Tracy Austin essay, along with four of his other pieces about tennis, have been collected in a beautiful, cloth-bound book entitled String Theory:  David Foster Wallace on Tennis.  My favorite essay of the collection is "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" in which Foster Wallace recounts his years as a pretty good junior player on the Midwestern junior scene, especially in Central Illinois.  My other favorite is "Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry."  They're all excellent essays, and I'm inclined to believe The New York Times Book Review that Foster Wallace is "THE GREATEST TENNIS WRITER EVER." 

He's thoughtful, observant, funny without unnecessary snark, and smart.  His knowledge of and affection for the game is obvious throughout.  I've never read Infinite Jest or his other fiction (and likely never will), but these tennis essays reinforce the pervading sense of loss associated with David Foster Wallace.

Here's a description of Michael Chang from the Michael Joyce essay that gave me a chuckle:

"Michael Chang, twenty-three and #5 in the world, sort of looks like two different people stitched crudely together:  a normal upper body perched atop hugely muscular and totally hairless legs.  He has a mushroom-shaped head, ink-black hair, and an expression of deep and intractable unhappiness, as unhappy a face as I've ever seen outside a Graduate Writing Program" (82).

If you love tennis and good writing, I think you'd love String Theory.  If someone you love loves tennis and good writing, I think it would make an unexpected but welcome gift. 

I'm no Tracy Austin, but I do love tennis.  I snapped this shoe selfie this summer during the USTA state tourney for Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  We came close to advancing but fell short.  I'd like to blame it on the Central Illinois wind, but that wouldn't be fair.*  I started String Theory a week or so later and liked knowing that I had just played tennis in the part of Illinois where Foster Wallace honed his junior game. 

*"Move your damn feet, Megan" (tip from me to me)


  1. I love this! Had no idea Wallace was a tennis player and I'd love to read this...loved the Chang quote. And even know who Michael Joyce is! I played tennis in high school and recently picked it back up again. In between, I was a loyal Grand Slam fan and attended the US Open at least once most years (I live in the area).

    Have you ever read Hard Courts by John Feinstein? Another interesting look at behind the scenes of tennis.

  2. I'm impressed you know who Michael Joyce is! I definitely did not know before reading the essay. One of the essays is about the U.S. Open -- I'd love to hear your thoughts on it since you've actually been.

    I grew up in Cincinnati and have attended the Western & Southern Open several times, but going to the U.S. Open is definitely on my bucket list!!!

    I've never read Hard Courts. I have a few Tennis TBRs right now: Beautiful Country, the novel by J.R. Thornton; Late to the Ball: Age. Learn. Fight. Love. Play Tennis. Win. by Gerald Marzorati; and Open by Andrew Agassi. I'll add Hard Courts to the list.

    A great tennis novel is Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott. Have you read it?