Published in December 1991, “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornados” was David Foster Wallace’s first story for Harper’s Magazine. Read the full essay on Harpers.org through September 14. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to our entire 165-year archive.
Unless you’re just a mutant, a virtuoso of raw force, you’ll find that competitive tennis, like money-pool, requires geometric thinking, the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles. Tennis is to artillery and air strikes what football is to infantry and attrition. Because the expansion of response possibilities is quadratic, you are required to think n shots ahead, where n is a hyperbolic function limited by (roughly) your opponent’s talent and the number of shots in the rally so far. I was good at this. What made me for a while near great was that I could also admit the differential complication of wind into my calculations. Wind did massive damage to many Central Illinois junior players, particularly in the period between April and July when it needed lithium badly, tending to gust without pattern, swirl and backtrack and die and rise, sometimes blowing in one direction at court level and in another altogether ten feet overhead. The best planned, best hit ball often just blew out of bounds, was the basic unlyrical problem. It drove some kids near mad with the caprice and unfairness of it all, and on real windy days these kids, usually with talent out the wazoo, would have their first apoplectic racket-throwing tantrum in about the match’s third game and by the end of the first set would have lapsed into a kind of sullen coma, bitterly expecting to get screwed over by wind, net, tape, sun. I, who was affectionately known as Slug because I was so lazy in practice, located my biggest tennis asset in a weird robotic detachment from whatever unfairnesses of wind and weather I couldn’t plan for. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many tournament matches I won between the ages of twelve and fifteen against bigger, faster, more coordinated, and better coached opponents simply by hitting balls unimaginatively back down the middle of the court in schizophrenic gales, letting the other kid play with more verve and panache, waiting for enough of his ambitious balls aimed near the lines to curve or slide via wind outside the green court and white stripe into the raw red territory that won me yet another ugly point. It wasn’t pretty or fun to watch, and even with the Illinois wind I never could have won whole matches this way had the opponent not eventually had his small nervous breakdown, buckling under the obvious injustice of losing to a shallow-chested “pusher” because of the shitty rural courts and rotten wind that rewarded cautious automatism instead of verve and panache. I was an unpopular player, with good reason. But to say that I did not use verve or imagination was untrue. Acceptance is its own verve, and it takes imagination for a player to like wind, and I liked wind.
Read the full essay here.