String Theory

String Theory by David Foster Wallace

If I had to list my hobbies, tennis and reading would be the top two. It is rare that I get a chance to kill two birds with one stone. There’s a dearth of tennis writing out there, the majority of which are biographies, probably my least favorite genre. Even the recent Members Only was barely about tennis at all. So I was glad to have remembered about these essays. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever read Infinite Jest, so this was my shot at David Foster Wallace.

1) “Because tennis courts are for sun- and eye-reasons always laid lengthwise north-south, and because the land in Central Illinois rises very gently as one moves east toward Indiana and the subtle geologic summit that sends rivers doubled back against their own feeders somewhere in the east of that state, the court’s forehand half, for a rightie facing north, always seem physically uphill from the backhand.”

First, I didn’t know that about tennis court orientation (is it even true?). Second, this passage paints such a vivid picture of tennis. I don’t have the writing skills to describe how good this writing is.

2) “Tornadoes, for me, were a transfiguration. Like all serious winds, they were our little stretch of plain’s z coordinate, a move up from the Euclidean monotone of furrow, road, axis, and grid.

DFW’s appreciation of tennis stems from its mathematical beauty.

3) “‘At 2-3, I broke Chris, then she broke me, and I broke her again, so we were at 4-4.'” – Tracy Austin biography

I loled multiple times at the savagery in the Tracy Austin chapter.

4) “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”

I’ve had this thought exercise many times with my friends. Would I rather be top 100 in tennis or math? The fact that the 100th best tennis player in the world can barely make a living is a travesty.

5) “The idea that there can be wholly distinct levels to competitive tennis – levels so distinct that what’s being played is in essence a whole different game – might seem to you weird and hyperbolic.”

I’ve also discussed this with friends. How many orders of bagels are there? How many 6-0 levels am I away from Federer? Maybe 6-7. And how many 6-0 levels are below me?

6) “No part of Stade Jerry is nonsmoking, and at matches so many spectators are chain-smoking du Maurier cigarettes that at times a slight breeze will carry the crowd’s exhaled cloud of smoke out over the court, transforming the players into nacreous silhouettes for a moment before the cloud ascends.”

Every time I smell cigarettes, I feel like I’ve time traveled back 20 years.

7) “Apparently over 50 percent of tickets for this year’s Open were pre-sold to corporations, who like to use them for cultivation of clients and the entertainment of their own executives.”

The most frustrating part of the US Open experience is browsing through the slim pickings of seats on Ticketmaster and then showing up to a half-empty stadium.

8) “Part of the beauty of the tennis here is the way the artistry and energy are bounded by specific lines on court, but the beauty of the commerce is the way it’s un- and never bounded.”

The onslaught of capitalism at the US Open is a shock to the senses. If you’re not a card-carrying (Amex or Chase) millionaire, then GTFO.

9) “English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on.”

I have none of these.

10) “Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh.”

It was a bit strange to read DFW’s views on the transition of the men’s game into power baseliners. A decade later, we just take it for granted. For the most part, Federer is still the outlier. Almost everyone else is a slight variation on solid serve, big forehand, big backhand.

I was sad when this book ended and even more sad when I realized that he would never write any more tennis essays. DFW deemed Federer a genius, but he himself is a genius too, for gifting the world its zenith of tennis writing from a bonafide fan.

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