By Mark Hedden
Much of the early conversation during the “Game. Set. Match. Write.” panel was about what most consider the two biggest guide stars in modern tennis writing – David Foster Wallace’s wide-ranging work, much of which is collected in “String Theory,” and John McPhee’s book about a single Arthur Ashe match, “Levels of the Game.”
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, author of The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey, commented on how McPhee’s book was almost cinematic, the way it shifted perspective from the ongoing play between Ashe and opponent Clark Graebner to the story of the roads that them led there.
Michael Mewshaw, author of Ad In Ad Out and Short Circuit: Six Months on The Men’s Professional Tennis Tour, thought that kind of work wouldn’t be possible in the modern era.
“No player would grant the author the kind of access to do that kind of work again,” Mewshaw said.
Considering the work of Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer, who has written about soccer and tennis for Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times, found some irony in the fact that a writer known for his free-form, digressive style and radical punctuation was so in love with the elegance of a player like Roger Federer.
“David Foster Wallace had more in common with Nadal and all his ticks and pulling his shorts out of his butt,” said Dyer.
“I think one of the fun and interesting things about tennis is that it can be written about in a lot of different ways. It’s a genre to me that is really kind of genre-less,” said Louisa Thomas, a contributing writer to the New Yorker who writes mostly about sports. “There’s a lot of pathos in tennis.”
“There’s no template. You can just do it. And that to me was just very liberating as a writer,” she said.
“One thing that bothers me about tennis writing is the amnesia that is involved,” said Michael Mewshaw, adding that he felt that players from earlier eras were just forgotten, something other panelists took issue with.
“I rather like the adversarial panel,” Geoff Dyer said.
“Tennis reveres it’s legend more than any other sport,” said Thomas.“You can watch Martina Navratilova and Chrissy Evert play tennis today.”
“There is also a very popular trend of getting older players as coaches,” Thomas added.
“I feel like writing about tennis is a kind of paying forward the era you live in,” said Phillips.
Phillips said that you’d be “awfully hard pressed” to find a tennis player who chose the sport on their own, pointing out that most tennis greats were deeply involved in the sport by the time they were four.
He said he thought there were no second generation tennis greats “because it’s an awful grind.”
“A lot of players are in the process of not just figuring out the match or the point, but trying to figure out themselves,” Phillips said.
“There are basketball parents who coach their kids, but with the exception of Doc Rivers, nobody is coaching their kids in the NBA,” he said, contrasting that with the number of players whose parents coach them throughout their careers.
“As a parent, I wouldn’t want my child to think that losing says anything about them,” said Thomas. “But as a fan, I’m often deeply invested in who wins.”
As to whether the way a tennis player plays lets you know anything about their personality, there were also some differing opinions.
“I think it’s a fundamental Tennant of a lot of tennis writing — and I’m guilt of this myself — to read psychology into a tennis style,” Thomas said. “In a way I completely understand the need to resist that.”
But, she added, to a degree it was what she felt made the sport so compelling to watch.
Dyer said that some days he felt that, “The people play tennis is just the way that people play tennis.”
“We all have different levels of commitment to the idea of people,” Thomas added.
“For as allegorically elegant as Federer is, nobody shanks more than Federer,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he felt there were a lot of different versions of Federer’s character largely due to in multilingualism.
“He has this kind of artichoke of a personality,” Phillips said.
“One of the things about tennis, as opposed to other sports, is there’s some idyllic quality to it,” Dyer said.
He felt that Wimbledon had been largely responsibly for maintaining that idyllic quality, adding “There’s still a hint of it being just a wonderful game at the vicarage.”
“I never love the life of a writer more than when I’m playing tennis on a Tuesday afternoon,” Dyer said.
Mark Hedden lives in Key West and is a writer, photographer, semi-professional birdwatcher, and Executive Director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society.