To appreciate my commentary regarding ‘ON TENNIS: FIVE ESSAYS ‘by David Foster Wallace, you are going to need know two things about DFW and then two about me. Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis athlete whose budding potential fizzled among the competition of a broader geographic draw. Fortunately he fell back on being a brilliant writer of long and lauded novels, and many ironic essays on popular culture, including these pieces about tennis. About me, I play tennis almost everyday, despite being a terrible, talentless athlete, and I’m a sometimes silly, but never ironic, fan of the professional game. Second, I write this commentary a week after attending this year’s Cincinnati Open hardcourt tournament, while also preparing to do nothing else for the next fortnight except watch the U.S. Tennis Open in New York City on television.
This summer when I mentioned my Cincinnati excursion to friends mostly the reaction was the what-where? Upon my establishing that the Cincinnati Open is among the premiere annual events in the international tennis season, the inevitable next question was who’s playing? “Everybody!” I invariably said, and began to tick down a list of the some of the greatest current athletes in the world. “Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena, …” Are you losing interest yet reader? Because when I went any further down that list of current greatest athletes my interlocutor typically started to lose interest too.
This brings me back to ‘ON TENNIS’ and the connecting tissue of DFW’s five essays. He writes about his inexplicable attraction to mediocre-written sports biographies, the mercurial tennis career of Tracy Austin (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”), and the shameless commerciality of the US Open (“Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”). Most conspicuously, DFW devotes an entire piece to his near-religious experience seeing Roger Federer win Wimbledon in 2005 (“Federer Both Flesh And Not”). David Foster Wallace has been dead eight years, but Roger Federer is still among the top three men’s tennis players in the universe (2015 Cincinnati Open Champion!). Everybody knows FED right? My standard of differentiation between athlete and super-athlete is if my seventy-six year old mother has heard of ’em. Jordan? Navratilova? Manning(s)? If Mom knows vaguely what sport they play they have transcended ordinary athletic fame, as far as I can measure. DFW’s obsession with tennis athletes was a common theme as he depicted them in his essays alternately as either under-appreciated Gods or extraordinary humans possessing cartoon superhero-like powers.
The essay that resonated with me personally was DFW’s documentation of shadowing a then, yet to fizzle, young player named Michael Joyce through qualifying matches at the Canadian Open in 1995 (“Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”). Wallace described himself sitting in a stadium court with the capacity for ten-thousand and counting ninety-three people present, most appearing to be family and friends of Joyce’s opponent, a Canadian college star. Watching Joyce practice and play, DFW reflects on the lonely, mostly unmedia-covered reality of the unknown professional tennis player, and their subsumption of all other benefits of human living to achieve enigmatic victory in one heroic pursuit. As DFW invites us, “try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything.” Even the most dedicated tennis fan probably cannot ever appreciate the amount of personal sacrifice their favorite player has made, and how the athlete consents to commit the healthiest years of their life seeking success in a competition that is seriously small compared to sports with broader appeal.
My husband and I take our vacations, traveling thousands of miles to dreamlands like Cincinnati and other cities hosting less esteemed professional tennis tournaments than the U.S. Open. One reason is we get to see great tennis live and experience the game at a higher level of enjoyment. Also, because we both have our favorite players and smaller tournaments give us close access to our version of celebrities.
On one of the days I was wondering around Lindler Family Tennis Center, annual site of the Cincinnati Open, I accidentally found two of my personal favorite men’s players in practice. Full disclosure, I happen to be gay and it is no accident most of the players who’s careers I follow close also happen to be gifted with extreme physical attractiveness. I will not bother to mention the names of these two European men, only tennis fans have heard of them, but, as of this posting, those two are ranked the eighty-sixth and the eighteenth most talented men’s tennis athletes in the world. Even my exotic number eighteen is an unknown name to most sports fans in the U.S, but he was right there practicing on a tiny, vacant court in Cincinnati, and I was agog. There was no fence between me my tennis idols. They were dressed in practice t’s and witz-cracking with each other in German, completely abstracted to the mortal nearness of me. The only other spectators around were two kids standing by the changeover chairs with jumbo, nine-inch tennis autograph balls and marking pens waning dry in the Ohio sun.
Kids can be really dumb. When I was about seven my father took me to an obscure, outdoor vaudeville revival show at a family campground. I remember pestering the no-name regional actors at the beer keg after their big show for their autographs on paper napkins. For all I know, the campground’s summer-stock might have been volunteer performers. I guess anyone could be made into a hero by seven year old me, if they were doing anything that made people sit and watch for over fifteen minutes. Similarly, I doubt the kids waiting around the Cincinnati practice court even knew the names of the two handsome Euro pros. Collection of an autograph was more vital to those two kids than the once in a lifetime opportunity to interact with the autographer. Top one hundred players, sure, but to a kid the player was just someone their parents dragged them out there to appreciate. My enthusiasm set apart, those two amazing athletes are not famous on the other side of the mesh-windscreened privacy fences of Lindler Family Tennis Center. It is the live tournament atmosphere that makes it feel like a rare and lucky occasion to a pathetic fan like me.
A 2015 Harris poll, that ranks the most popular sports among U.S. adults, determined that pro-football is number one. The next sports ranked, in descending order, were pro-baseball, college football, then auto racing. Women’s tennis came in twelfth most popular, followed by Not Sure. Men’s tennis was in the cellar with the remaining sports anyone can think of, like Horseshoe Pitch, Lumberjacking, and the WNBA.
So, it is not unusual to find oneself at the Cincinnati Open sitting in a coveted low row right at the net during exciting matches that are under-attended or booked disproportionately in giant empty spaces. One of the matches I sought out in Cincinnati started at 3 p.m. on Tuesday in a four-thousand seat stadium court attended by, at best, about three dozen people. We went to watch thirty-two year old and ninety-forth ranked Yen-Hsun Lu (Taiwanese, pronounced loo yen-soon) against our boy, a handsome twenty-four year old, fifteenth ranked player named David Goffin (Belgian, pronounced girl-friend). Goffin’s high rank and angelic beauty set apart, I suspected that many of the people who come out to Lindler Family Tennis on first round
days were probably Cincy-metro locals who dropped by with freebie tickets given away on WKRP. Not me. I bought tickets in advance and drove thirteen hours because I love the early rounds of these tournaments. I study the game of my favorite players up close and steal professional-pointers for my own amateur follies. As DFW wrote, “Television doesn’t really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do, how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry.” All true, but, full disclosure, a big part of me is seriously interested in seeing David Belgian Girlfriend in the flesh because he is so fucking cute!
Although I was there among hundreds of empty chairs to watch Goffin, I would never make a show of it. Tennis is, above all, a game of expected decorum on behalf of both players and spectators. Such expectations had not been made clear at the gate to a father/son pair a few rows in front of me. I do not want to sound elitist, so try to understand if I describe them as neither dressed nor carrying themselves with the reserve one might anticipate at a world-class tennis event. Nothing prevented them from having their version of a good time. They banged their fists on the backs of chairs sending the sound of metallic vibrations down the aisle. And they hooted like transfers from a brawling hockey match, “Loo! Loo! Loo!” and “Fuck ’em up, Rendy!”
It turns out “Rendy” is the nickname recited loud in public venues among devoted fans of Yen-Hsun Lu, the also pretty cute rival that day of David Goffin. I was able to eavesdrop together that the father/son party had driven seven hundred miles from Minneapolis, even though they had no other personal connection to Rendy Lu at all. They were “just fans.” The idea was weird to me that those two would don their fishing
caps, get in the family pickup, and follow the tennis career of a thirty-two year old, ninety fourth ranked Taiwanese player around the country. But who am I to judge? Were my reasons for being there so much more relatable? I have to say the father/son co-fans of “Loo!” were inspiring. They liked tennis for tennis sake, and wanted thousands of empty chairs to know about it. Is that not what I want for tennis, for other people to like it too?
I posted pictures on Instagram of every living, serving tennis star I saw, and checked-in on Facebook from every court in Cincinnati, but my effort last week did not make tennis a more popular sport. Professional Tennis is terrible at promoting itself, and yet the economy of sponsorship and prize money is enormous. Total prize money for the Cincinnati open is over five million dollars; U.S. Open thirty-nine million. Maybe that is not as enormous as the economy of the NFL, but then, on a curve, the level of athleticism involved would register just as astronomically far beyond my grasp. Whether other people ever get into tennis is neither something I can effect nor something that makes a difference. All I really care is that the game is there for fans and that my favorite players succeed. Tennis is not meaningful, but it is the stuff that makes life endurable. Fame is a state of the fan’s mind.