Reviews — From the September 2016 issue

Tennis Lessons

The meaning of the game

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Discussed in this essay:

Late to the Ball: Age. Learn. Fight. Love. Play Tennis. Win., by Gerald Marzorati. Scribner. 288 pages. $26.

Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, by William Skidelsky. Atria. 272 pages. $24.

String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis, introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Library of America. 158 pages. $19.95.

There are a lot of connections to be made here, but we must start with the irrelevant and unimportant fact that in 2008 I sold — or was about to sell — my just-finished novel to a new publisher. I was fifty, and they understandably wanted to know what I had left in the tank. Plenty, I assured them, even though I suspected I might be, as John McEnroe likes to say, running on fumes. So what was I thinking of writing next? A book about tennis, I said. While I’d been struggling to write the just-finished novel my wife kept reminding me that if I spent half the time writing that I did obsessing about tennis, I’d have finished it ages ago. I’d always written about what interested me most, and nothing at that point interested me more than tennis. And it wasn’t only me. With Andy Murray gnawing his way closer to the Wimbledon title, tennis had become more popular in Britain than it had been since the headband era of Borg–McEnroe. The top seed at my new publisher was one of my regular tennis partners; he liked the idea of a book about tennis at fifty and I liked the idea of seeing how good I could get at this past-midpoint in my life.

“Pancho Gonzales,” 1949, by Harold E. Edgerton © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington/Art Resource, New York City/MIT. Courtesy MIT Museum and Gus Kayafas/Palm Press

“Pancho Gonzales,” 1949, by Harold E. Edgerton © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington/Art Resource, New York City/MIT. Courtesy MIT Museum and Gus Kayafas/Palm Press

As a perennial bottom-feeder for whom writing has always doubled as a way of getting free shit, I was also hoping that a top-notch coach might be willing to give me lessons in return for the massive exposure guaranteed by inclusion in the book. Maybe a major sponsor would come on board if I slimed in a couple of paragraphs about how my game had improved beyond recognition once I started playing exclusively with Head rackets, Babolat strings, or Wilson sweatbands. At the very least I’d be able to claim the cost of balls and court fees against tax.

There were benefits on the writing side, too. It was time to start working like a professional man of letters for whom book-writing is like being on the A.T.P. tour: finish one book/tournament, spend the weekend shopping, and then move right on to the next. My pattern was to finish a book, sink into terrible depression, and do nothing until I got so depressed that doing nothing became even more terrible than doing something — at which point I’d begin the long, exhausting effort to get back in shape. It was like Agassi spiraling down to satellite tournaments before bouncing back, except that when it comes to writing nobody gives a toss — or even notices — whether you’re doing it anymore (and it’s not like I’d ever been ranked that highly anyway). Moving straight on to the tennis book would break this miserable cycle. There was much excitement and hugging as the deal was done and a two-book contract signed. In fact, as I should have known, the contract just dragged me deeper into depression, because the obligation to produce a book only intensified my aversion to writing it. There was another physical factor, which I’ll come back to later, but the bottom line is that I didn’t write the book about tennis. It all turned out okay because, as a diversion, I started summarizing the film Stalker, and this gradually turned into a book about the film director Andrei Tarkovsky, which the publisher gracefully accepted in lieu of the book on tennis. Phew.

But it’s kept nagging at me, the thought of that unwritten masterpiece. I mean, it’s not as if I’m no longer interested in tennis. I’m actually more interested in it than ever. In my early forties I used to do the English thing and just watch Wimbledon; then my interest expanded to include the three other Grand Slams; now that I’m bumming a friend’s log-in details for the Tennis Channel I watch everything from the Chennai Open to the Fallujah Closed. I’m also better informed about more of the players and the lives they lead. The internet has a lot to do with this, obviously. You know, you’re reading about Tomáš Berdych (a player you’d had zero interest in until Murray’s loyal wife, Kim Sears, was caught shouting “Fucking have that, you Czech flash fuck” during a tense match at last year’s Australian Open) and then you’re reading about Berdych’s wife and then you’re looking at pictures of her and before you know it you’re like the character at the start of Ardashir Vakil’s novel One Day, reading The Inner Game of Tennis in bed while his wife masturbates beside him.

Since I was still crazy about the inner and outer game I started wondering if I could shift the abandoned project back a decade — to tennis at sixty. But now I discover that I’ve missed the bus, that Gerald Marzorati got there early with Late to the Ball, a book about getting very serious about tennis at sixty — which sounds incredibly ancient even though I’m writing this a few days after turning fifty-eight. It’s a perfectly decent book and I wish him well, hope he’ll be around to add a postscript to a future edition updating us on how his game and his knees are holding up at seventy. It’s fun to read; there’s probably not a single thing anyone can disagree with in the whole book. But it’s also a bit dull to read because there’s scarcely an interesting sentence in the whole book. Which is or is not to be expected given that Marzorati is a former editor of The New York Times Magazine, with the experience of “decades of editing stretching back to the 1970s.” Does this mean improving people’s writing, or just ironing out the wrinkles, getting it to conform to an undeclared but time-honored ideal of style as essentially invisible? Certainly it’s one of the curious but inescapable facts of literary life that skill as an editor has no bearing at all — either positive or negative — on one’s ability to write.

In tennis terms, having been a coach for all these years, Marzorati has now become a player. Tennis and writing — which is what this essay is about, after all — mirror each other in that within certain shared rules one’s style is as thoroughly imprinted with one’s DNA as a strand of hair. There is broad agreement on how to execute each stroke, coaches are always trying to smooth out little kinks in someone’s game — and yet a player’s style remains so distinctly his or her own that, even if their faces and clothes were blurred out, we would recognize any of the stars by their movements alone. When it comes to your own game a reverse process is in operation. This is what might be termed the Rimbaud or Je est un autre syndrome.

At a high-tech tennis camp in Utah, Gerald is filmed while playing, so that he can see what needs adjusting. He’s hitting contentedly, feeling rather pleased with his stylish backhand slice. When he is shown the video later this backhand slice turns out to be nothing like as smooth as he’d imagined. At which point it becomes tempting to mistranslate the Rimbaud quote along the lines of the International Tennis Federation’s damning verdict on Maria Sharapova’s meldonium bust: I is the sole author of my misfortune. But the really distressing thing “was not my slice but simply seeing my aging self.” Being “neither overweight nor balding, I had flattered myself that I looked younger than I was,” he writes. On the screen, “I looked every bit my age.”

But Gerald keeps at it — “I like persevering” — and keeps getting better, even when this means getting worse. He’s willing to have his serve dismantled in order to properly reconstruct it. Impressive in itself, this would have been still more admirable if he’d done the same with his prose. Then we might have been spared the likes of “I was in a mood as bright as the day.” One of the reasons my own style — sorry, I mean my own game — is such a hog’s dinner is that, until recently, I could never bring myself to shell out for lessons, so I was happy to cadge a few secondhand tips from Late to the Ball, only the simplest of which — hold the racket loose on a sliced backhand — I’ve persevered with. So I shouldn’t be too critical. After all, as men of a certain age, Marzorati and I are partners rather than opponents, content still to be playing, even if that contentment regularly finds expression as soul-destroying torment. The biggest torment is that I can’t play as frequently as I would like. In this regard, the relationship between tennis and sex is quite instructive. When I was young I could, if you’ll permit a little exaggeration, play tennis and fuck all day. Now that I’m older I can’t do either nearly as often. With sex, my desire has diminished, so there is no frustration. I have less sex partly because I want less. With tennis, the desire is as huge as ever — I just can’t get it up (and over the net) as often. Or, and it may be the same thing, I need longer to recover. It’s a fine line between playing as much as possible and playing so much that you get injured. If I play as much as I want to I get hurt and play less than I did before I played as much as I could. But when I am playing it’s bliss. I look at the young guys on the courts next to mine, whacking the ball back and forth like there’s no tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and I know that no one is happier than I. Because I’m still playing.

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