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Levels of the Game

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  1,562 ratings  ·  160 reviews

This account of a tennis match played by Arthur Ashe against Clark Graebner at Forest Hills in 1968 begins with the ball rising into the air for the initial serve and ends with the final point. McPhee provides a brilliant, stroke-by-stroke description while examining the backgrounds and attitudes which have molded the players' games.

Kindle Edition, 162 pages
Published April 1st 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published September 23rd 1969)
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Mar 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So, having just read Álvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death about an allegorical tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo, it seemed logical to move immediately to a book about a real tennis match. This one is about a semi-final match in the 1968 U.S. Open between two amateurs at the time: Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe. The aces, the overhead lobs, the cross-court backhands are served without fault by John McPhee.

Every point is accounted for. Interspersed is a
May 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, sportsball
If there's any question that I am completely in thrall to the miraculous literary powers of John McPhee, the fact that he inspired me to read a book about tennis and that I thoroughly enjoyed it should remove all doubt.

This isn't really a book about tennis as much as it is a battle of the wills between two completely different men who symbolize two very different Americas -- one rich, white and conservative (Clark Graebner) and the other striving, black and open to new ideas (Arthur Ashe). Like
Joe Noto
Jan 22, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-own
This was not a book I'd typically be interested in, but I heard about it, saw it was under 200 pages, and gave it a shot. This is a sports novel. The sport is tennis in the 1960s. The book covers a semifinal match in the first US Open between two men at the top of their game. The author takes you through the match and intermittently talks about each player's background, upbringing, beliefs, etc.

As I started it, I honestly got a bit bored when the author would take us back and discuss the
Aug 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a passage in Levels of the Game, a short book about tennis by John McPhee, where the narrative pulls back and begins to consider the family of the tennis player Arthur Ashe. Names cascade, one after the other, starting from back in 1735 when a ship full of slaves sailed from Liverpool to Virginia, and ending in the present day:

‘…On the Blackwell plantation, where Hammett had lived, the plantation house—white frame, with columns—still stands, vacant and mouldering. The slave cabin is
Jan 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
There is a The Master of Go feel to this book. Two players squaring off, their backgrounds, how that decides what they are, the political and social undercurrents of that time, etc. While Kawabata's protagonists represented different ages and the different ways of playing the game, McPhee's are of the same age but from as different backgrounds as they can be from.

A white male, born to privilege and deep pockets, an only son, and his eye right on the money and the American dream which he knows is
Scott Middleton
Impeccably detailed, this is a great book to get started with John McPhee even if (or maybe "especially if") you don't know or care much about tennis. As the title suggests, this book goes several levels deeper than the ostensibly titular match, stopping along the way to comment on race, class, athleticism, parenting, civil rights, you name it. As with other John McPhee books, there is very little glitz 'n glam in the style of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson, but instead careful insight and ...more
Eliot Peper
Jun 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Levels of the Game by John McPhee is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. The book narrates a 1968 tennis semifinal point-by-point, while simultaneously profiling the two players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, and exploring America's politics, history, racism, class structure, and psychology with surgical precision. In following the course of a single tennis match, McPhee illustrates an entire nation.
Kyle Magin
Aug 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
McPhee writes the most delightful books. He takes complex ideas or studies (tennis here) and explains them simply so that the reader can grasp it.

I really like this style of sportswriting, where a writer explains a single match/game/race and unwinds the biographies of the players involved and the story of the sport through occurrences in the match. Dan Okrent did it for baseball in 9 Innings, and McPhee does it here with tennis.

Also, I never really knew the story of Arthur Ashe (and this book
Jack Nolan
Dec 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic writing
Blake Fletcher
Mar 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've heard non-fiction writers refer to John McPhee as a god. I thought it was hyperbole. It isn't. In a literal sense, Levels of the Game is a book about tennis. However, with each point, McPhee describes a whole world behind the racquet that is hitting the ball forward.
Another well-crafted book from McPhee. I'm hoping to get through all of them eventually.
Jan 22, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jessica says my reviews are too snooty; I assume this is because my reviews are comparative based - so many allusions to David Markson, or other books I've read.

But I challenge you to meaningfully review books in a non-comparative manner. I can talk about a book's pacing, and tone, and vocabulary, and meaning, and entertainment - but what are the scales for those? What qualitative and quantitative words would lend any meaning to my attempts to elucidate those factors for someone else? And even
Aaron Burch
Aug 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Holy shit, this book is good. It's obvious DFW loved it/McPhee. It reminded me, though I'd be hardpressed to put into words why, a bit of W.C. Heinz's The Professional. Mostly just because I so loved both? Heinz's book is a novel, whereas this is nonfic, but there's something about boxing and tennis that feels very similar, and both books drew me in in a way that can be tricky with sports narrative, but when it works I'm all in.

Bonus: the word "backswing" is used four times. (And "perfect" =
Oct 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, nonfiction
Such an exquisite little book. McPhee writes with such a graceful simplicity and effortless wit. You can really feel his fascination with these men and with the game of tennis.

I feel bad writing such a short review for a book I so thoroughly enjoyed, but there's just nothing else to say. It's short and incredibly readable and damn near to perfect.
Greg Talbot
Sep 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
On the rarefied ocassion I will pick up a newspaper, I have never once read the sports section. And that blindspot has prevented me from from reading about some great matchups, and celebreated cultural moments that have happened on the green fields and packed arenas. But all is not lost, great matches, provide great commentary and insights into our world.

“Levels of the Game” is absolutely a book about tennis, and in particular one fateful match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. But like so
Oct 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One measure of my interest in a nonfiction book is the amount of time I spend researching beyond the pages, and for this one, I am still not finished learning. I read this because it was selected for the Andrew Luck book club, and found myself wondering, why did he pick this? Was it because it is considered a hallmark of sports journalism? Because Arthur Ashe was once stationed in Indianapolis? Why tennis?

I do remember Graebner and Ashe, as well as most of the other tennis players mentioned. One
Becki Iverson
Apr 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've seen this book recommended by Tim Ferriss and others for years and finally got tired of hearing about it, deciding to read it on my own. It took months to get it from the library but it was SO worth the wait. Everything said about this slender book is true: it is so very much more than simply a sports story, and it really is one of the best pieces of short writing I've ever read. I flew through the 150 pages or so in a single sitting yesterday and have been mentally chewing on it ever ...more
Steve Barrett
Dec 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Levels of the Game is a well-written story about a tennis match, the personal histories of the two players, and the racial politics in the mid 20th century USA. McPhee expertly weaves together these narratives, picking them up and setting them down as the story progressive.

The name of the book implies a deep inspection of the mental game behind tennis. There was definitely an element of this - the players discussed when they most wanted to break serve, when to take aggressive or conservative
Jordan Shipman
After reading Draft No. 4–I felt destined to be a John McPhee fan. Which is why I wanted to read more of his work and Levels of the Game seemed like a really cool premise.

And that is what I liked most about it—the premise. Profiling two contrasting characters to the rhythm and backdrop of a tennis match. Very creative sports journalism. Full of the John McPhee style and one liners I love.

The story was written in 1969, however, and since I’m not a tennis buff—I found the material hard to get in
Rancy Breece
Aug 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
From the first sentence where he describes Arthur Ashe’s powerful serve to start the men’s semi final match of the 1968 U.S. Open to the majestic backhand that ends it, McPhee engages his reader with breathtaking descriptions of points, the psychological and philosophical differences between he and his opponent Clark Grabner. McPhee is on top of his game as both players were on theirs that day. You don’t have to be a tennis or even a sports fan to quality of McPhee’s writing and the quality of ...more
Lisa K
After watching Virginia civic leaders dedicate and rename Boulevard for Arthur Ashe, I knew I needed to reread this.

McPhee's spare, vivid writing engages me so thoroughly I feel I understand something about tennis. I can very nearly picture the matches of a sport I don't follow. At this point in my life I know Richmond much better than at first read; I have a better sense of the places and the people. I did not remember from my first reading the weird ideas of Ashe's opponent (Clark Graebner)
Ravi Sankar
May 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is astonishingly good.

The description doesn't sound like anything I would like. A detailed recounting of a tennis match from 1968? I played tennis for a bit as a kid, but I never liked it that much, and I don't watch tennis at all today. So the fact that McPhee manages to make a basically point-by-point recounting of a match not just readable but riveting is really impressive. He also interleaves childhood history and character portraits of the two players, well placed to keep you engaged,
Jacob Mclaws
Aug 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
It took me a while to get to this book because the cover and print job are kind of low quality, but with the US Open coming up I decided it would be fun to read about Arthur Ashe and the first US Open. I really loved the style of this book, splicing in biographical details about Ashe and Graebner between hits in a seamless natural way. Reading his description of the two player's styles of play and their personal mannerisms over four sets was surprisingly never boring or repetitive, just ...more
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In probably less time than the match took, you can relive the Men's Semi-final of the 1968 US Open. Interspersed with the play-by-play account is the backstory of Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. They grew up in very different environments but with a similar love of the game. Ashe's biography was most interesting to me. He was cerebral and curious, and yet knew how to keep himself focused when it mattered most. McPhee's writing is masterful, such that this book seems to put a lifetime into a ...more
Sep 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
John McPhee gives us complex, thoughtful profiles of Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner while following the course of a tennis match they played at Forest Hills in 1968. Graebner is a white conservative from Cleveland who came up in tennis the middle class way. Arthur Ashe was the African-American liberal who broke through the color ceiling in tennis and became an articulate champion of civil rights as well. Much of the contrast in the two men is revealed while they play out points. The tennis ...more
Nov 18, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book has no chapters: It's a 150-page essay by John McPhee that begins with the first point and ends with the last point of a semifinals match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at Forest Hills in 1968. Interspersed throughout are the two players' backstories, which are so different and yet so similar. A remarkable tour de force that can be read in less time than it took Ashe and Graebner to complete their match. Much obliged to the tennis-loving friend who referred this book to me.
Brian Chun
Aug 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If I was going to be an asshole, I would say that the whole narrative of this book and the winner has already been predetermined simply with the indication of the title of the book. However, I did enjoy the book as it provided context to both players/participants, which help give the book context.

This book is great, but if anyone would want context in any sports game, there's a sports cable channel, called ESPN...
Kate Ringer
This book is an interesting look at a semi-professional tennis match that took place in the late 1960's between Clark Gable, a white, upper middle class Republican, and Arthur Ashe, the first African American in the United States to achieve major prestige in tennis. McPhee examines each players history and the impact that has on their play, as well the tiniest details of the match. Stylistically, this is an anthropological and physiological study of this match, but it reads like a story.
Oct 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Notable sentences

If I walked in to his room and said "I have a bullet in my stomach", Arthur would have said "what else is new?"

"Tennis is a fight of character. A couple of good shots can build the spirit. It used to be impossible to get into a match with Arthur, because there was no character in his game. It was like hitting against a blackboard."

"He plays the game with the lackadaisical, haphazard mannerisms of a liberal."

as opposed to

"Republican tennis"
Jan 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What an incredibly written and captivating feat of sports journalism. He effortlessly moves the narrative from an account of the tennis match to the player's personal histories that define how they play the game. His writing is paced in perfect time with the ebbs and flow of the action, making it feel like you are both in the stands as a spectator and on the court in the minds Arthur Ashe and John Graebner.
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The ...more