Guest Post – Wallace On Sport

Like any postmodern artist, David Foster Wallace has a (mostly) static bibliography from which fans can choose to differentiate themselves from merely fans to ‘fans-of.’ For in much the same way that someone can claim to enjoy the Beatles’ stuff from before 1966, or be a fan of Scorcese’s “lesser-known” stuff (whatever that might be, I have no examples handy), Wallace fans can now lay claim to being fans of his non-fiction or fiction, early stuff or later stuff, and even more specific areas of work (i.e. his sports-related non-fiction v. travel-related work, etc.). And while there are of course all kinds of hierarchically-related games being played w/r/t who “knows” more about a specific artist, there is a deep affirmation of an artist’s greatness when these more specific areas begin to emerge as places of legitimate investigation. This prologue is, of course, a self-conscious defense of my choosing to look at two of Wallace’s tennis-related essays, compare them to modern sports-writing clichés and tropes, and argue that what makes Wallace’s work in the genre superior is location.

First appearing in Esquire, Wallace wrote an essay that centered on professional tennis player Michael Joyce originally titled “The String Theory.” A longer version of the essay appeared in Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again under the way better title of “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” and this version will be the one referenced in this essay.

By reading the essay itself, it is unclear what Wallace’s assignment at the 1995 Canadian Open was. This is a trademark of his non-fiction. As a reader who has only ever known exhaustingly fact-checked non-fiction, it never seems to me unclear just what a writer-on-assignment is/was assigned to write (about). There is to me a sense that the non-fiction writer must include the relevant pieces of their observations with an oftentimes not-subtle defense of their inclusions so as to ease of the rigorous fact-checking process their essay will undoubtedly, and on a deadline, undergo. I may of course be simply projecting this; I’ve never been fact-checked. Either way.

If there is anything like an apology in Wallace’s Joyce essay, it is only in the form on a non-apology about his outright hatred of Andre Agassi. Otherwise the essay not only takes pains to capture the intricacies of a professional tennis tournament, but also the mind-numbing life that a mid-level professional like Michael Joyce must live.[1] And there are no apologies made about either. No apologies are made to the reader about why Joyce is chosen as the essay’s central character,[2] and while some tournament-related info is relegated to footnotes, I’d imagine Wallace put the onus on his Esquire editors to cut out any finer points on how and why these tournaments function as they do.

But let us consider location. For my purposes, the term is bastardized. I’ll take here location to be what is often in lit-classes talked about as a perspective or lens, a narrative viewpoint, perhaps. But location here hopes to invoke a concrete physicality that considerations of quote narrative viewpoint lack. In the essay on Joyce, Wallace is both Joyce and not. Wallace admits that, “the idea of me playing Joyce…is now revealed to me to be absurd and in a certain way obscene” (240). As someone who considers himself an athlete, and a not-bad one at that, Wallace takes pains to distance his own fantasies about athletic glories from the realities of Joyce’s decidedly non-glorious existence as a professional tennis player and the obviously lacking glories therein. He’s also not really press. Wallace is tired by the bullshitty conversation of, “The local Quebec reporters up in the Press Box” who “curse in French…or begin telling one another long sexual-adventure stories that my French is just good enough to establish as tiresome” (241). And what with the essay’s 17th footnote acknowledging Wallace’s ignorance on the press’ ability to ride with players from the hotel to the Stade Jarry (223), Wallace positions himself as non-press, as a press member with a relationship to the visible tennis press not unlike the one Joyce has to the visible tennis pros. And so now we’re grounded.

In his New York Times essay titled “Federer as Religious Experience,”[3] Wallace’s location is again there and not. He is on the ground at Wimbledon, his thesis being “that if you’ve never seen [Federer] play live, and then do, in person…then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a ‘bloody near-religious experience.’” Wallace speaks to Federer in person, the “One-on-One” he refers to throughout the piece, but the only words of Federer’s that appear in the main text are secondhand, words overheard in the pre-press conference shuffle beneath Centre Court. While Wallace is on the ground, in the trenches, right there next to Federer, (and so by extension is the reader), this access is not about what kind of perspective it allows regarding the athlete-as-person, but rather the perspective about the athlete-as-athlete. This is not about how Federer (or Joyce) is just like Wallace or a reader, but how both parties are fundamentally unknown to each other.

Any high level athlete, after nearly every competition, is required to meet with reporters afterwards; these press conferences are timed by communications staff either employed by the competition, the team for which the player competes, or by the player themselves. The only really important thing being to understand that these conferences have overseers who can, and do, end them abruptly (if, say, for instance, someone asks too hard of a question). The questions in these conferences are straightforward; generally looking for the athletes perspective on an event most any spectator would have noticed as significant, often a “turning point” as it were.

But and so the main problem with this format is that now there are sportswriters, tasked with writing about the game they watched from the press box, seeking the opinion of the athlete who was in the moment, an athlete that actually experienced the turning point. The problem is, of course, the athletes don’t really experience these moments like that at all. A “turning point” is a narrative creation that announcers, fans, and media “experience.” The athletes themselves are only peripherally involved in this.

The aforementioned only words of Federer’s that make their way into the main text of Wallace’s essay are his remarking that the tennis ball looked, during his Wimbledon semifinal against Jonas Bjorkman, “like a bowling ball or basketball.” And in these remarks it is obvious to Wallace that any suggestion that an outsider, no matter their proximity to the court, is not going to be observing Federer doing what they think he’s doing. To say that Federer is playing tennis, and to then assume that both Federer and any other observer are on the same wavelength w/r/t what “tennis” really is, would be to miss the only observation worth making. Wallace suggests that the “metaphysical explanation” for Federer’s greatness “is [that Federer is] one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” And while this answer may suffice for answering questions about what Roger Federer is and isn’t, epistemic questions about what Federer and others believe he is doing are more obscured: “playing tennis” does not seem adequate.

The difference between Federer and Michael Joyce, aside from their not occupying similar ability- and talent-related plateaus, is that Federer meets with Others (media, fans, agents, bureaucrats) all the time, while Joyce never enjoyed the success that would have required such a wide array of potential distractions.[4] However both Joyce and Federer handle their own set of distractions in similar ways: they have to. The most significant distraction set before Joyce during the essay is the antics of Mark Knowles, 1986 U.S Junior Indoor Champion and noted hothead. Wallace, in the essay’s 49th footnote, remarks that by the match’s second set, Joyce’s victory is but a formality over the mentally fried Knowles (244). And in the main text to which the Knowles meltdown serves as a footnote, Wallace recalls his own defensive tactics as a player, his reliance on his opponents’ adolescence (as if Wallace himself were not one, too), as a way to grind down impatient players (242-3). This, of course, is not what Joyce is doing. Joyce is simply playing his game, not allowing the errors that one makes when matched against an equally talented opponent to rattle him.[5] Federer’s distractions, or at least the ones made light of in Wallace’s essay, do not regard tennis at all. Following the One-on-One, Federer is asked to sign a piece of gear for an ailing child, and while the man who asks for the autograph is apologetic and downright embarrassed to have asked, Federer meets the request.[6]

Each spring, American sportswriters who cover the NBA begin polishing their LeBron Theories. These are at-the-ready thought pieces that only tangentially relate to the most recent game LeBron James played that put his career in some kind of inappropriately broad context of athletes from any era and any sport that may have, in again some extremely vague and peripheral way, done something similar to whatever it is LeBron just did. At the time of this writing, LeBron James is about to begin his second straight NBA Finals as a member of the Miami Heat. He will either be both redeemed and justified by a victory, or remain cursed villain who cannot live up to the hype created by the same people who write his villain narrative. And this-all, for the less sports-inclined reader, is in the context of a team sport where LeBron is just one of five players on his team on the court at any one time; that any victory or loss could ever be as much his responsibility as one reading American sports-writing is supposed to believe is, to put it lightly, a reach.

But part (and some would argue most) of what makes LeBron so unlikable is not really his fault but the fault of his handlers. Being LeBron James is big, big business, and just a small percentage of that business involves playing basketball. But so much of what Wallace emphasizes in the Joyce essay revolves around the notion of choosing to be a great athlete, whether that is really a choice, and what happens when that choice is made. For while Wallace wonders whether Joyce really ever chose to be a tennis player, by the time of the ’95 Canadian, he most certainly is, would have it no other way, and would likely be a 22-year-old of slightly below average utility were he to not be playing tennis professionally.

But because Federer or LeBron are athletically superior to a player like Joyce (and a suitable basketball analogue) does not mean they are any more prepared to be something other than an athlete. Part of what is so instructive about Wallace’s essay on Federer is, again, that Federer’s words are not part of the main text (which Wallace knows means they likely go unread). Modern professional athletes are now so often yawn-inducing when they speak publicly in part because, well, their job is to play their sport well, not speak well, but more significantly because they are instructed to be yawn inducing. “Bulletin board material” is something that any athlete with a microphone in front of their mouth wants to avoid; a turn of phrase or prediction that will antagonize an opponent is a cardinal sin. There is, however, a great deal of chicken-and-egg-type unpacking that I think need be done w/r/t how sports-writing is crafted and just what roles the writers, athletes, and readership play. I will try not to bore the reader with an additional essay’s worth of discussion, but do consider, do the athletes sound dumb because they are, because they’re told to be, or because they’re prompted to be? Each response puts the responsibility on a different party: the athlete, their handlers, the media. I think much of the discussion that surrounds sports-writing, the discussion that inevitably leads to grouping all sportswriters in two piles: best in the business and hack, largely concludes that it is, of course, a mix of all three.[7] That the athletes are of course not supposed to be interesting, and that the PR people responsible for each athlete take great pains to ensure their client does not slip up, and that the media are overburdened by deadlines, depleted staffs, or are simply not very good at interviewing, researching, and writing, that their work ends up being lame anyway, are all accepted as reasons for the sports media’s total failure to do anything but antagonize readers, athletes, and one another.

I think Wallace offers a different solution altogether. Throughout the Joyce essay, Joyce himself is rarely heard from and Federer likewise. The media who will report on LeBron James’ progress on the basketball floor will be sitting in seats in the upper levels of the lower tier of an arena in Oklahoma City or Miami. And yet they will write from the locker room, or from the press conference, or perhaps even try to write from what LeBron sees on the floor himself.[8] The problem is that none of these perspectives is where the media member will actually be. And for some reason it seems like a great big concession to admit that the sportswriter is not really there, not the way the athletes are. It seems like a concession or admission that cannot be made, for then the sportswriter becomes just another person not playing the sport (which is, all things considered, the whole point of watching). But even in his most fantastical moments, Wallace does not allow himself to forget where he is. Wallace, like those who will cover this year’s NBA Finals, like all those who make a living covering professional sports in America or elsewhere, is not there, on the pitch or the court or the diamond. There are certain ways in which very mediated access to the competitors can be given, but Wallace, in the final footnote of his Federer essay reminds the reader that they, the athletes, like so much else can, and perhaps should, merely remain who and what and where they are: there. Both, as Wallace describes Federer, flesh and light.

Wallace concludes this last footnote by writing, “But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.” Just don’t try to touch: there is less there than you think.


Myles Udland is a writer living in New Jersey. He can be reached by email at

[1] And not “must live” in the colloquial sense of, ‘I wonder what that guy’s life is like,’ but “must live” meaning ‘this is how Joyce is required to live in order to be as good at tennis as he is.’[back]

[2] One can sort of deduce, however, that Wallace having access to Joyce in a way that would never be possible with Agassi, Sampras, etc., sort of makes that decision itself.[back]

[3]  Though one of course wonders what Wallace himself would have titled the piece.[back]

[4] I’m aware that the last sentence is just all kinds of weird w/r/t tense because, well, Federer is still playing at an extremely high level, (though what would Wallace have to say about Djokovic? Imagine.), and Joyce is doing whatever ex-professional tennis players do.[back]

[5] “[Knowles] seems not to notice that Joyce gets as many bad breaks and weird bounces as he, or that passing spectators are equally distracting to both players. Knowles seems to be one of these people who view the world’s inconveniences as specific and personal, and it makes my stomach hurt to watch him” (244).[back]

[6] “[Federer] doesn’t pretend to care more than he does. The request is just one more mildly distracting obligation he has to deal with. But he does say yes, and he will remember—you can tell. And it won’t distract him; he won’t permit it.”[back]

[7] Not that I don’t think the questions asked by the sportswriters are the biggest reason why athletes are perceived as boring, I do. But don’t ever forget that sports-writing, like anything else even vaguely public, is an overtly political profession.[back]

[8] Q: “LeBron, what did you see out there on that play when Durant’s shot went in with no time on the clock to give the Thunder a one-point win?”[back]

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