What David Foster Wallace Got Right About Tennis

Depending on where you’re standing, David Foster Wallace is either the literary authority or an easy citation on several topics: oysters, porn conventions, state fairs, cruises, coastal snobbery, and especially tennis, which might be the most legitimate of the claims. When writing about the sport, he was insightful, kind, and endearingly frustrated, as only lapsed players can be. His limits as a player meant he was able to see the success of others more clearly. Greatest or not, he showed the specialness of a sport that is all too easy to describe with clichés.

String Theory, an anthology of Wallace's writing on tennis, is out this May, and it provides a complete view of his work on the subject. Every piece he wrote is there, from his excoriation of Tracy Austin’s descriptive abilities to his rapturous appraisal of Roger Federer to his deservedly adored profile of Michael Joyce. Men's Journal spoke with John Jeremiah Sullivan, who wrote the foreword, about Wallace and the difficulty of writing about athletes.

There’s a part in the Federer piece where he says he has nothing “journalistic” to offer on the subject of Roger Federer. Do you think there’s a difference between journalism and what David Foster Wallace was doing?
If he was making a distinction like that, I don’t think that was very smart. And I kind of don’t think he would, if pressed. There’s so much back-and-forth movement through the membrane of quote-unquote literary nonfiction on one side, and journalism and reportage and magazine work on the other. They’re constantly swapping DNA, so it’s a silly thing to do, to be drawing lines in sand when it comes to that stuff. And especially with sports writing. It’s traditionally a place in newspapers where the most literary writers have gone, you know? In doing this, I think he was standing pretty firmly in that tradition, not outside of it. When he said he had nothing journalistic to offer, I think he may have meant something more like: I have no information. He would have used it, if he had it. He would have found a way to throw it in. But what are you going to say about Roger Federer, you know?

Especially in 2006. We’ve already talked about him. Kind of a lot, at that point.
This was something I didn’t go into in the foreword, because I thought it would be kind of newsy. Essentially, thinking about Federer’s career and where he was in the arc of it, when you look at it now, it’s clear that the main drama, the one that ended up giving a narrative to men’s tennis in the decade after he wrote that piece, was the rivalry between Federer and Nadal. And Nadal dominated it. You can’t say that Federer was at the beginning of his decline, because he did continue along the path to becoming the greatest of all time — or one of the candidates for it — but it is funny that Wallace de-emphasizes that so much in his essay. You can almost tell at certain places that he can sense that storyline coming, but he needs to hold it off because he needs Federer to be a god so he can write about him. It’s funny to think about the difference in their styles. There was so much brutality in Nadal’s tennis when he was at his peak. So much of what he was able to do on the court had to do with the sheer violence he was bringing to the ball.

Yeah, and his body has suffered from it.
So much the opposite of what Wallace is praising in Federer. And that shot that Federer could never handle, the one that was his Achille’s Heel, the reason he could never get on top of that rivalry, that exploding shot to his backhand. It was just pure power. It was brutal. It was brutal tennis.

What do you mean "he has to be a god for him to write about him"?
I mean that there’s a form, a very ancient form, that’s being brought to bear in that piece that goes all the way back to Greece. The celebration of a great athlete. He was praising an athlete who was capable of briefly becoming a god in the midst of doing what he was doing, and that other story about Nadal and about how Nadal was going to wear him down, that wasn’t the story Wallace was wanting to tell. It wasn’t the story he was there to tell. But if he had done it again, several years down the road, it would have been unavoidable. It doesn’t take anything away from Federer, but… I don’t know. It puts it in reality.

These pieces don’t really allow for the newsy elements of tennis.
The form Wallace is working in, it can’t really go there and remain what it is, you know? And it’s to its own credit, and to his credit, that it knows itself well enough not to try. That’s probably another reason why he loves Roger Federer, or why he relished that assignment: because Federer is so boring. I mean, I don’t really think he’s boring, but his media profile is as this very bland person, and that solves the problem for Wallace in a way.

It can be frustrating. What’s going to happen if Wallace does try to do that sort of reporting? He’s going to come up against a wall of emptiness a lot of the time. I remember writing about Marat Safin for GQ. This is I don’t know how many years ago — they sent me to Hamburg. He was playing a clay court tournament there, and for about three days I followed him around. Watched his matches, rode in town cars with him. Just asking every question I could put together, every assemblage of English words I could put together, just to try to get something out of him, and he had nothing to say. To me. I’m sure when he’s with his friends in Moscow and drunk, things come out. It’s not a judgment, it’s more like a description of a dynamic, and it would make it impossible for someone who’s writing like Wallace to pursue that kind of story. You couldn’t have the kinds of conversations you’d need to have.

Last year I had to cover a tennis player, I was just following him around at the Miami Open, and I encountered a similar dynamic. I think I asked him about his therapist? Because he has a therapist on his tours. So I said, probably insensitively, “What’s that like?" And it was almost like I had asked him to name names in front of a committee. It was really upsetting to him to have to be questioned.
Or if he had answered, he would have been like, “We have talks about my game, and also about my personal life."

Right, and thanks, that’s what a therapist is.
You know who’s not like that? Serena Williams.

She was really talkative with you?
You just felt like you were talking to somebody whose personality had been allowed to develop fully. Enough so that she could be having a really intelligent, sophisticated conversation, as subject to interviewer, and also drop that mask and still have something to say. It sounds like faint praise probably. But my father was a sportswriter, so I grew up just following him around professional athletes, and she stuck out.

Did your dad [sportswriter Mike Sullivan] have the same kind of frustration, or did he have tips?
I remember joking about it with him all the time. Doing imitations of athletes, just repeating sentences with the words in different order, to try to have something to say. And they hate it, too. It’s not stupidity as much as diffidence, a lot of times. They’re wishing they didn’t have to be talking to you. And meanwhile you’re trying to manipulate them into saying something interesting. There’s the Reddit AMA thing with Federer where he praises Wallace. He says, “I was amazed he was able to write such a comprehensive piece because we only spent a half an hour together in the ATP office." And it’s true at face value, the praise is deserved, but you also can see it from Wallace’s perspective. Fifteen minutes into that conversation, he was probably like, yeah I’m not going to...

...even use this.
He can’t help me.

And also why should he?
Exactly. There’s respect implied. And Wallace would not have wanted Federer in his head at that point. He wouldn’t have been smart to let him burrow into his head. You can almost think of it as some kind of formal meeting. I doubt their conversation had much meaning in the context of the piece.

Was “How am I going to bring Wallace’s suicide in here?” a question in your mind as you were writing this foreword?
It’s funny, I hadn’t even thought of mentioning his suicide in the foreword. I felt like enough had been said about that. But I found that article in a small town newspaper where he had grown up and where he had played his tennis, and it was one of his old high school tennis buddies talking. There was something really moving about it. The friend was praising his character on the court, and I guess I was thinking partly about all the tennis players who might pick up this book. It’s not just people like us and David Foster Wallace fans; I think there are going to be a lot of people who pick it up because they love the game. It says an enormous amount to have one of the people he used to play with praise him that way, and not be afraid to mention his suicide, which the friend does in the paragraph I quote. It said something definitive about the way the game was intertwined with his life, and after quoting it, I felt like anything else I would have said would have been redundant.