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String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis

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An instant classic of American sportswriting—the tennis essays of David Foster Wallace, “the best mind of his generation” (A. O. Scott) and “the best tennis-writer of all time” (New York Times)
Both a onetime "near-great junior tennis player" and a lifelong connoisseur of the finer points of the game, David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis with the authority of an insider, the showmanship of a literary pyrotechnician, and disarming admiration of an irrepressible fan. Including his masterful profiles of Roger Federer and Tracy Austin, String Theory gathers Wallace's five famous essays on tennis, pieces that have been hailed by sportswriters and literary critics alike as some of the greatest and most innovative magazine writing in recent memory. Whiting Award-winning journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan provides an introduction.

138 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

David Foster Wallace

127 books10.9k followers
David Foster Wallace worked surprising turns on nearly everything: novels, journalism, vacation. His life was an information hunt, collecting hows and whys. "I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today," he once said, "of which maybe 25 are important. My job is to make some sense of it." He wanted to write "stuff about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live." Readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style: his comedy, his brilliance, his humaneness.

His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. Wallace was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand-page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive in the contemporary world, accepted a special chair at California's Pomona College to teach writing, married, published another book and, last month [Sept. 2008], hanged himself at age 46.

-excerpt from The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky in Rolling Stone Magazine October 30, 2008.

Among Wallace's honors were a Whiting Writers Award (1987), a Lannan Literary Award (1996), a Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction (1997), a National Magazine Award (2001), three O. Henry Awards (1988, 1999, 2002), and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 475 reviews
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,672 followers
February 7, 2017
"Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled."
- David Foster Wallace, in "Roger Federer as Religious Experience"


One of the benefits of this book is it allowed me to read some of my favorite David Foster Wallace essays (on Tennis) and introduced me to several I had somehow missed. This small collection (138 pages) contains the following essays:

1. Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley - aka "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornados: A Midwestern Boyhood" in Harpers (December 1991)
2.How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart - Originally Published in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
3. Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness - AKA "The String Theory" in Esquire (September 17, 2008)
4. Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open - Tennis Magazine (September 1996) - Link Broken
5. Federer Both Flesh and Nott - AKA "Roger Federer as Religious Experience" in New York Times, (August 20, 1996)

Anyway, I still love DFW. And loved rereading most of them and am still amazed at DFW's ability to infuse his writing with passion, maths, and somehow translate the kinetic beauty of Tennis specifically, but sports also into the written word. I hate to overplay it, but sometimes I feel the same way with DFW talking about Tennis as I felt when I read Tolstoy talking about God or Melville or Conrad about the Sea. His writing at moments when he is talking about trigonometry, athletic achievement, and velocity, becomes both flesh and light. One of my favorite lines, I think it may have been from the second essay about Tracy Austin, he talks about Michael Jordan "hanging in midair like a Chagall bride". Perfect.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books906 followers
July 3, 2017
Sometimes we read books for unusual reasons. Exhibit A: String Theory. This book has been sitting in the well of the bedside table, a gift from my daughter to my tennis-loving wife, since Christmas. Me, I checked on-line yesterday to be sure the town library, where I had four books on hold, was open today. Much to my surprise, when I arrived at 12:50, I found a note on the door that said they had followed Town Hall's lead and decided to close at noon. Be back on the 5th!

Of course, I would be the most unpatriotic of curmudgeons to gripe about this, so I will leave that to your imagination. I poured my return books into the book drop outside and drove home. That's where String Theory comes in. Though I only know a bit about tennis, mostly from it being on the television so much and from attendance at the U.S. Open (my wife appreciates my good sportsmanship in attending with her, even though I am allergic to NYC), I picked up this book because of its author, the well-known David Foster Wallace. I've read a sum zero of zilch by Wallace, and here in my hands I had a 138-page chance to correct that.

Looking at the Table of Contents, I decided to read the last essay, "Federer Both Flesh and Not," first. Uncannily enough, it was about a Federer vs. Nadal match at Wimbledon, which only started today and included these two revered figures still (Wallace's essay was written in 2006). I enjoyed the writing as well as the inside info on Federer (who knew this hyper-cool Swiss Mister once had a temper?).

I continued, jumping back to the second essay on Tracy Austin. It made some fun of her biography, ghost-written by a writer who apparently couldn't write much better than Austin herself. The quotes from the book, hilariously bad, sustained me.

I kept going, though the essays after that weren't as interesting. One, on the U.S. Open, seemed dated, as it included a lot about food and drink sold at that tournament and how OUTRAGEOUS (read: $3) the prices were. Hard to identify with THAT. Still, some of the descriptions of players famous enough for any sports fan to remember--Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Connors--were fun to read.

The last essay I read was the first, an autobiographical piece on Wallace's own tennis-playing career back in his school days (Illinois). It ends with a bang (a tornado), I'll give it that.

Overall, I found I liked DFW's voice and felt as if I got to know him a bit (never a good thing when a guy's gone due to suicide). Not that I'll be tempted anytime soon to jump into Infinite Jest or anything. Weird, too, was DWF's fondness for footnotes. Some seemed worth reading, others seemed worthy of the cutting-room floor, but man, did he use them in abundance. I'm not used to that in an essay collection.

Anyway, that ends today's story: That's how I read a book I never even thought of reading until around 1:30 this afternoon. Now to find some other dark horse to read through the holiday tomorrow. (Sis-boom-bah! Stars and Stripes and Closed Libraries Forever!)
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
604 reviews330 followers
June 20, 2019
3.75 🎾 🎾 🎾
Hard to rate this as 3 of the 5 essays were written in the 90s and the last one in 2006 which makes it a bit dated. However, Wallace had my attention and appreciation. I love tennis and this was a good warmup to Wimbledon which will begin in a week and a half. All these years later and Roger Federer is still playing and winning. As others have noted, the final essay titled Federer Both Flesh and Not was excellent. I wonder what the author would have to say today. We'll never know as he committed suicide after a long struggle with depression two years after publication. Our loss. He was a great writer.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
116 reviews1 follower
April 24, 2017
Back and forth without being dreary
Endless drills without feeling weary.
A beautiful game
Prose that puts us to shame.
Essays about tennis: String Theory.
Profile Image for Florencia.
649 reviews1,901 followers
August 25, 2018
I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is...

From Michael Joyce's career, David Foster Wallace discloses a large part of the recent history of tennis and its dynamics. This essay will be appreciated, of course, by people who knows about and feels something towards this sport.
I played tennis when I was younger so we have a bond. In that sense, this could have been a 5-star essay, had it not been for the highly sardonic tone of some of Wallace's remarks, which at times sounded even slightly racist. He was funny but also rather caustic for my taste. (To some people, including his biographer, Wallace's violence was part of his genius, everything made him fascinating. A rom-comic hero. Please, walk away and take your definition of "genius" with you. And of "fascinating." And of "hero.")

Focusing on the text now. This article first appeared in Esquire in 1996 and then was included in Wallace's non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments under the pretentious title "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" (nothing matches the impactful and much cleaner "String Theory"), which I read. I wasn't able to connect with this essay back then as much as I did now. I suppose it was due to the general lack of connection and sense of overwhelm that book brought me. I think I can't handle too much of this writer. On footnote #12 of this text, the author says: Past a certain point, impressiveness is corrosive to the psyche. (Sorry, Infinite Jest, our appointment has been postponed. Again.)

Ah, the footnotes. A myriad of numbers, succinct observations or Proustian passages - it's easy to get lost. However, the writing is delicious: it blends erudition and wit in a balanced way. Well, for the most part.
The most memorable thing - despite remembering many tennis players' names and their fantastic game, or how I was very young but still rooting for Sampras when he played against Agassi, whom I disliked for some unknown reason, though not even near the annoyance caused by one Hewitt and his obnoxious, arrogant manners - is the way in which Wallace dissects, very concisely but effectively through one of his footnotes, the nature of love. Love for what you are doing and whether it was one's choice or chosen for you at a young age.
He loves it–you can see this in his face when he talks about it: His eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of a slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career, the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to call the things we love. It's the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who've been married for an incredibly long time or in religious people who are so religious, they've devoted their whole lives to religious stuff: It's the sort of love whose measure is what it's cost, what one's given up for it. Whether there's 'choice' involved is, at a certain point, of no interest ... since it's the surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.

Like writing about something until midnight with the rush, the impetus given by all the answers you were able to get, and all the questions that will never go away. The pupils dilate, ineluctably. And few understand.
And you don't care.

Aug 17-24, 18.
* Later on my blog.
Profile Image for Kirti Upreti.
197 reviews96 followers
September 12, 2020
"When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots."-Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Beauty - the most mysterious of all things in nature - is omnipresent and yet escapes the sight. Our unaided eyes remain ignorant towards all the beauty that keeps fleeting across us day and night. The power to perceive it demands the virtue of patient slowness. Slowness doesn't work alone and it wakes the slumbering yet unwavering microscopic focus within the mind of a viewer.

The most miraculous feats, in sports or otherwise, aren't so exhilarating for the ones who perform it, for their minds work in a different dimension. In their realm, time moves at a pace where another blink of an eye would almost take eternity. They can feel their each pulse and twisting of their toes in absolute slowness. They don't practice improving the force they exert but try to meld each pore of their bodies and each reflex in their minds with the universe. Everything else happens by itself.

For the viewers watching from the outside, it seems to be superhuman. And it would continue to remain so. Beauty needs slowness, slowness needs patience, and patience needs time. Beauty isn't meant for the bourgeois who lose their sleep over the scoreboards - both in sports and in their own lives. This luxury awaits those who can choose to remain still, unaffected by the noise around them.

David Foster Wallace's essays are simply hypnotizing demonstration of the dimension where finesse resides, beyond the circuses of consumerism and clamorous fandom. He not only perceives this fleeting beauty but his words also exude it like a mellifluous stream of consciousness. Love for sports is quite misunderstood because, other than beauty, the only thing an ordinary mind is more oblivious about is love itself.
Profile Image for Vishy.
668 reviews210 followers
February 16, 2019
Ever since I discovered that David Foster Wallace's tennis articles have been compiled into one book, I have wanted to read it. What more can one want - one of the great contemporary writers writing on one of my favourite sports? What can be better? I finally got the book a few days back and read it.

'String Theory' is a compilation of David Foster Wallace's essays on tennis. It is a slim book at 138 pages. (If we include John Jeremiah Sullivan's introduction, it is 145 pages.) The book has five essays. The first one 'Derivative Sport at Tornado Alley' is autobiographical. In that essay David Foster Wallace writes about how he got into tennis, how he was good at it at the junior level, how the tornado weather of his hometown in Illinois influenced his tennis game, and how his game didn't improve as he got older and how he moved away from tennis to mathematics and creative writing.

The second essay 'How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart' is about Tracy Austin's memoir 'Beyond Center Court'. In this essay, Wallace reviews Austin's memoir. He is not impressed by it - he calls it 'this breathtakingly insipid autobiography' and quotes excerpts from it to prove his point. If it had ended there, it would have been just a negative review of a ghosted autobiography. What makes the essay great is what Wallace does after that. He asks why a genius player like Tracy Austin - who won her first professional event when she was 14, won her first grand slam when she was 16, and was World No.1 when she was 17 - why a player like this who played sublime tennis, can't reproduce those tennis skills on the written page. He investigates this and it is incredibly beautiful and insightful to read. On the whole, the essay is a negative review of a book, but it is one of the finest, most beautiful negative reviews of a book ever written. David Foster Wallace has elevated book reviewing to an art form here and I was so thrilled and so jealous to read it. I wish I could write like this.

The third essay 'Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness' (in addition to having a long title, it was also the longest essay in the book, at around 45 pages) is about Michael Joyce, the tennis player. Michael Joyce was a tennis player who was active in the 1990s. He later became Maria Sharapova's coach. David Foster Wallace goes to watch the Canadian Open and spends time with Michael Joyce and follows his progress closely through the draw. He offers his thoughts on Joyce's game, how it compares with other top tennis professionals of that time, and investigates what is the difference between the game of a top 100 player like Joyce, another player who has to routinely play in the qualifiers to reach the main draw, and a top ranked player like Agassi or Sampras. When I was younger, I mostly followed only the top players, but as I have got older, my favourite players have tended to be those who are not really top-ranked - I have tended to support the journeyman / journeywoman player more. Whenever my favourite player upsets a seeded player, I am thrilled and it feels like Christmas for me. So, when I read this essay, it resonated with me deeply.

The fourth essay, 'Democracy and Commerce at the U.S.Open' is about what the title says. It was interesting, but it read more like a journalistic piece for the newspaper.

The fifth and last essay in the collection, 'Federer Both Flesh and Not', is David Foster Wallace's most famous essay on tennis. In it, he waxes eloquent on Roger Federer, the Swiss great, and investigates what are the roots of his genius. One would expect a fan's raving account, but this essay is definitely not that - Wallace elevates the gushing essay to art form, and it ends with one of my most favourite lines in the book. The book has an introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan which is a beautiful essay on its own right.

I loved 'String Theory'. I have read excerpts from David Foster Wallace's works before, but this was the first time I was reading a full-fledged book. Wallace is a master in the art of essay writing. He weaves together a delightful sport with exquisite prose and creates a beautiful work of art. His writing style is natural and not contrived, the beautiful passages are not artificially sculpted but flow naturally. I think this is how intelligent, non-pretensive writing looks like. Reading the essays in the book gave me a lot of pleasure and delight. I read my favourite, beautiful passages again and again. The earlier essays in the book have minimal footnotes, but the later essays have lots of footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes flow into more than half the page. If you find footnotes distracting, you will find those pages annoying, but if you are a footnote lover like me, you will love it. One of my friends said that she wished that David Foster Wallace had been around to comment on Roger Federer's comeback during the 2017 Australian Open. That would have been a great essay. I also feel it would be interesting to read what he thought about Djokovic and Nadal. It is sad that we will never know.

'String Theory' is one of the finest books written on tennis or on any sport. Tennis is famous for ghosted autobiographies that famous players come out with, which sell like hot cakes. That is the single, most popular genre in tennis writing. Occasionally, there might be a big tennis book, which has a lot of pictures, or a book which talks about one of the famous matches. Books like David Foster Wallace's, are rare. I haven't seen one before. So I am very happy and glad that this exists. I wish Wallace had written more tennis essays. I wish this book was 500 pages long. But we have to take what we get. And I will take this.

If you are a tennis fan, or even an essay fan, this book is a must read.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Beauty of Sport

"Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we...revere - fastest, strongest - and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or the best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they're beautiful : Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they're inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man...Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves."

What Might Have Been

"The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art - what the tragic-savvy Greeks would have called her technē, the state in which Austin's mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves - was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit. This memoir could have been about both the seductive immortality of competitive success and the less seductive but way more significant fragility and impermanence of all the competitive venues in which mortal humans chase immortality."

On Michael Joyce

"If you've played tennis at least a little, you probably think you have some idea of how hard a game it is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn't. And 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 control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times, right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man, who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot-square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something over 90% of the time. And this is the world's 79th-best player, one who has to play the Montreal Qualies."

"Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a figure of enduring and paradoxical fascination for me. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and his self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art - something few of us get to be. It's allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain or exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure."

On Beauty in Sport

"Beauty is not a goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex and cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body."

On Roger Federer

"Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform - and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled."

Have you read David Foster Wallace's 'String Theory'? What do you think about it?
Profile Image for Anita.
219 reviews11 followers
February 19, 2018
Dfw, shibboleth numismatist, here curated in the most multilingual English-only essays you'll ever need read, is in a rough spot bc you're just definitely coming in w/ unfairly high expectations, or at least i was, bc how freaking exalted of a writer do you have to be for an Editor at Library of America be like, "Yeah, we want to take five of this guy's magazine essays about tennis" - a topic that t.b.fair I guess is higher-and-higher brow as Having Eclectic Interests becomes more-n-more a status symbol - "and put them into a lil book, give it a punny title, and say it's about Sports when really it's just another way to Commercialize David which he probably would've found hilarious, see the first few pages of "Democracy and Commerce at the US Open" for further commentary." But also frick, it's pretty good, and watching Tracy Austin Break David's Heart Broke My Heart.

also: "TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love" wow u have wrecked an entire population segment David bc like what if you're in the not unlarge group that has only experienced the former of each pair huh? don't raise your hands youll embarrass yourselves

also a big problem is that every time i read F.W. i start adopting his style tics, which while only a little annoying when he does it, is tacky and nearly incomprehensible when I do, but I Just Can't Stop
Profile Image for Mela Kanootti.
148 reviews7 followers
February 27, 2023
Just hyvän tasoista ja herättelevää ja vähän liian paneutuvaa asiaa mulle joka kattoo n. kerran vuodessa jonkun grand slam -finaalin… Lakkasin jossain vaiheessa lukemasta alaviitteitä ja nautin! Himo päästä kattomaan tennistä paikan päälle & perehtyä nykyisiin suurnimiin enemmän JA selvittää minkälaisen matkan esim. Ruusuvuori on käynyt maailmanlistalle!! Ensimmäinen essee veti eniten koska kertoi kirjailijasta itsestään ja viimeinen koska kertoi mullekin tutuista: Federeristä ja Nadalista
Profile Image for Jakob.
73 reviews10 followers
October 8, 2017
"I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is."


A delightful collection of Wallace's five published tennis-themed essays, originally released in magazines such as Harper's and Esquire, spanning from 1991 to 2006. I was familiar with a couple of these beforehand, but it was particularly enjoyable to read all of them consecutively and chronologically.

The first piece, Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley, gives us an autobiographic account of Wallace's own junior tennis experiences, the burgeoning of his interest in math, and descriptions of the particular weather (read: wind) and geography of his Midwestern childhood and how he reckons this influenced both his relationship to tennis and math.

One of my favorites is the biting but humorous review of Tracy Austin's biography. It discusses the habitual shortcomings of the sports memoir genre, what it is that we find so attractive about world class athletes, and the seeming fundamental incommunicability these athletes face when it comes to describing their own remarkable gifts that we love to admire. He concludes that a sort of Zen-like vacuousness of mind and presence in the moment while competing may be a large part of what separates God-gifted performers from us mere ever-doubting mortals:

"[…] that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence."

Thereafter follows a piece about American tennis player Michael Joyce, at the time of writing an also-ran on the professional men's tour, with accompanying descriptions of a tournament in Montreal. Some of the descriptions of various famous and un– provide comedic material:

"at 6'3" and 160, [Petr Korda] has the body of an upright greyhound and the face of—eerily, uncannily—a fresh-hatched chicken (plus soulless eyes that reflect no light and seem to 'see' only in the way that fish's and birds' eyes 'see')."

It's noticeable but probably not that surprising that many of the stylistic elements and themes Wallace used in Infinite Jest also figure frequently in these essays, many of which were written around the same point in time. The piece Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open cites an endless stream of brand names and examples of advertising-speak, much like several parts of IJ. Wallace is no less on his footnote-game in these pieces either. At times, they serve as a platform for going on long-winded tangential ramblings—some of which are as amusing as the main text, and a few which feel rather superfluous—whereas others merely function as brief and humorous fragmentations of the text, such as when he interrupts a piece of dialogue merely to interject, "sic—no kidding."[1]

The last essay, which is probably my favorite, is his widely lauded piece Federer Both Flesh and Not. Eleven years after its publication, many tennis fans are pleased to still get treated to so-called Federer Moments—"when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're OK."

As a whole, I think the essay genre potentially is where DFW's writing shines the most. I loved IJ a lot, but it's no secret that it's also partly a big, uncontrolled, sprawling piece of madness, whereas the non-fiction provides a more tightly-knit and focused form for his thoughts to unfold in. The humor and powers of observation get to shine through.

[1]. sic—no kidding!
Profile Image for Brad Feld.
Author 37 books2,344 followers
August 21, 2016
I love tennis. I love David Foster Wallace. And I needed a book on the couch day after a gruelingly long week where I started feeling better and then was flattened this morning by a few spoons of my yogurt and peach breakfast.

String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis was the second book I read today (the first was Dark Matter by Blake Crouch – more on that in another post) and it was delightful.

DFW was a tennis player and a pretty good one, especially as a junior player. If you’ve read Infinite Jest, you know that in addition to playing tennis, he is uniquely remarkable in how he writes about it.
String Theory was a collection of five prior long essays (or whatever the long essay equivalent of a novella is) about tennis. The first is about his childhood tennis experience titled Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley. Next is a delicious, curious, and sad essay titled How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. The meatiest story is the third one titled Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness. I could have read this one twice and still not milked all the juice out of it. I paused after it and got some pretzels to munch on.

Having been to the U.S. Open a half dozen times, I completely identified with Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open. And the I remembered reading the last essay – Federer Both Flesh and Not – when it was published in 2006 as Federer as a Religious Experience in The New York Times PLAY Magazine. It used the Federer / Nadal Wimbledon 2006 final as the backdrop for its focus on Federer.

Once again, the footnotes are often better than the essay/story, as DFW lets his hair down (such as it was) and really lets loose on what is going on – unfiltered – between his ears.

I loved this book. If you are a tennis player or fan, do yourself a favor and get String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (it’s only in hardcopy and worth reading the old school non-digital way.) If you are a DFW fan, you’ve probably already read it (if you haven’t, prioritize!)
Profile Image for Sue Thornquist.
247 reviews10 followers
September 20, 2016
I love Roger Federer. I'm not sure I could articulate as clearly as I can now, after reading Wallace's eloquent and DEFINITIVE essay on him, WHY I love him so much. Wallace perfectly captured his legendary stature, his grace, beauty and power--literally as a tennis player, but also figuratively. And, never before have I read such accurate and compelling accounts of tennis matches as I did in this book. The power of Wallace's words and descriptions is stunning. I enjoyed all the essays in this collection, but the one of Federer, the account of Michael Joyce, a lesser player who I didn't know much about, and his beef with Tracy Austin's memoirs were my favorites. A wonderful read. I can see how non-tennis players would enjoy it as well. Wow, Wallace could write.
Profile Image for Nils.
39 reviews5 followers
October 24, 2020
30% fotnoter, 70% tekst (=100% bok (essaysamling)). En fin bok om tennis og livet.
Profile Image for Matthew.
193 reviews
March 19, 2019
What a pleasure it was to find the tennis essays of David Foster Wallace collected into one volume. I had heard about his famous ode to the amazing Roger Federer ("Federer Both Flesh and Not"), which is published here, and I had also previously encountered his "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open" from 1996, a healthy satirical view of the pro tennis sponsorship scene (which also foreshadows key notions that shaped his giant novel "Infinite Jest," such as calendar years being sponsored by Glad trash bags or Depends undergarments). But how enjoyable to find there was much more.

I'm not sure anyone could write about high school tennis with such scientific acumen as Wallace, who recounts zany afternoons playing outdoors as a very good junior in Illinois, where withstanding the gusting winds better than his opponents, and calculating how they would affect landing spots and ball spin, might have been his greatest skill. We're also treated to an awe-inspired look at the so-called alsorans of the pro circuit who are still quite good ("Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry") as well as a withering deconstruction of Tracy Austin's insipid memoir, published all too quickly after her retirement. If you like to read about tennis and you've never picked up "String Theory," what are you waiting for? Wallace has left the tour, so to speak, but he left behind some impeccably observed points about the game that, dare I say, you will love all.
51 reviews
April 26, 2020
I was in need of some tennis content and despite some misgivings about David Foster Wallace's abuse of author Mary Karr, I ponied up $4.99 to read his essays about tennis.

As I began the second essay, "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," the use of language started to bother me.

Under the guise of reviewing Tracy Austin's autobiography, he uses words such as "vapid," "stupid," "shallow" and "idiot" to describe her.

I might have thought that it was funny to savage a professional athlete's literary work, but in light of Mary Karr's claims, it all just comes off as very misogynistic, like he's the boy who is still angry he never got the pretty girls.

The other thing that comes across from reading just one essay and part of the second is that DFW is also just a pretentious asshole and so I cannot recommend this book.

To summarize Mary Karr's claims:

DFW pushed her from a speeding vehicle.
He threw a coffee table at her and shattered it.
He stalked Karr and punched out her car window.
He assaulted a student during a creative writing class he was teaching.
He had sex with his creative writing students and, while on book tour, a 17-year-old.
He stalked Karr and her five-year-old son, and threatened to shoot Karr’s husband with a gun he’d bought for that express purpose.


Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
615 reviews220 followers
November 18, 2021
Phenomenal at times, At others it’s evocative of the smartest kid in class who seems insecure enough to constantly have to prove how smart he is.

This is the second of two anthologies that I read back to back and I’m a little tired of Wallace’s style at this point. When it’s good, it’s so good, but when the writing is not polished and edited to a high sheen, it becomes gimmicky. Self-referential footnotes break up the flow of writing. Sentences that consistently seem like they’re trying to prove how smart they are by drawing attention to themselves.

It all can be a bit exhausting. However, I do think it’s worth it for the two or three essays that really shine with brilliance. The Federer one and the Book review come to mind.
41 reviews11 followers
March 7, 2018
4 for “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” The rest? Eh.
Profile Image for Cara M.
277 reviews18 followers
January 24, 2022
Look, David Foster Wallace is a great writer. He knows how to turn a phrase. He's got command of voice, and his description of being caught up in what might or might not have been a tornado is hugely gripping and evocative. But he is also deeply pretentious and seems completely blind to the possibility that he might have blind spots.

Essay one is a beautiful depiction of what it is like to be a guy who thinks that being a nerd makes him both superior to others, and also so abandoned by god and nature he is abject.

Essay two is one of those 'haha, don't we all read crap sometimes' pieces, where he's clearly trying to make some sort of general takeaway about the sports-autobiography as a piece of culture, but is entirely missing why he is drawn to these books. He cannot get away from the image of sportsman as hero--either glorious hero, or, in the case of Tracey Austin, tragic hero. But, seeing Tracey Austin today makes it pretty clear that she isn't a tragic hero. She is a person, who was good at tennis, and was in a situation where she was able to become great at tennis, and then she had a lot of bad luck, but, according to her, a lot of support from the people around her, and has gone on to live her life. Because it's her life. She still loves tennis! She's clearly not the sort of person who would ever publish a book where she talks shit about anyone. But that's not good enough for DFW, who is clearly desperate to wallow in the trauma, the disappointment, the manipulation of parents and friends and rivals.
In the end, DFW comes to the conclusion that sportsmen talk in cliches because they think in cliches. That you need to think in cliches--or, not think at all--in order to perform at a high level. Now, I don't think he's completely wrong. Thinking too much is a great way to screw up your game. There are studies on this. But I think that he's coming to the conclusion not because he sees and understands the sports autobiography, but because he doesn't want to think of sportsmen as people. Because, if they are ordinary people, who think in ordinary ways, but just have a good head when it comes down to stressful situations, it makes him fully lesser. He's not a physical genius, and I sometimes get the feeling that he can't bear to face that. He didn't sacrifice everything to become a great tennis player. He was always just okay. And so he has to put down the geniuses of sport as non-thinkers--while pretending to laud them as geniuses--to make himself feel better for not being a genius of sport.

The third essay was dire, with gems like--sportsmen have to give up everything to become so great at their sport, which is why we have basketball players who can't read. No, DFW, this is not why we have basketball players who can't read. We have basketball players who can't read because of systemic racism. Having any people who can't read is a failure of the culture, and claiming that it is a sacrifice that people make to become great at sports is actually _vile_.

Fourth essay: do not harass young women trying to eat their lunches in peace, DFW. Seriously?

Fifth essay: No thoughts, I kept falling asleep. The audiobook reader had a very soothing voice.

Overall, I really loved all of the tennis knowledge in this that reinforced what I'd learned from Baby Steps, and DFW himself was a very interesting character on the page. And now I've found Tracey Austin's youtube tennis lessons!
Profile Image for Jonathan Pool.
525 reviews98 followers
July 28, 2017
The five separately commissioned pieces contained in String Theory span the period from 1991 to 2006, shortly before David Foster Wallace's death.
Collectively, what does this collection bring to the DFW legacy?

* DFW writes about tennis, specifically, as a tennis insider. String Theory will particularly appeal to tennis aficionados in the technical detail and its grasp sport psychology. It's even more appealing for tennis fans following the game in the 1980's and 1990's as DFW references multiple participants in the tennis circus during this period.

* DFW writes with an intriguing mix of the vernacular and eloquently structured English language prose. At 135 pages only, String Theory is a great way to discover if DFW is for you. Despite the brevity of the book, and the banal subject matter (a potential criticism I would apply to all sport focused books){1}, the language used is dense and the conclusions insightful and thought provoking.

* DFW's use of, (obsession for) footnotes,{2} is on full display in String Theory. It works very well in stories of this sort where a number of characters are introduced appear,(and where the footnote is used to elucidate that person) but who,if expanded in the main narrative, would distract from the flow of the story.

* DFW is a very amusing writer. Examples abound: "even netophiles like Edberg and Krajicek have been staying back and whaling through the first two rounds"

* A criticism of DFW: He is not coy in making some very pointed, very barbed, comments about certain players. Andre Agassi,{3} and the lesser known Mark Knowles {4} in particular, are subject of notable vitriol. Given DFW's antipathy towards Tracy Austin's autobiography (on the grounds of its blandness) it's maybe not surprising that he determines to inject an edge into his writing. It seemed a bit vicious to me and was repeated in two of the essays.

Do DFW's ruminations on tennis stand up today, ten years later?

• DFW's analysis of Roger Federer are as accurate and apposite today, as in 2006 when he penned his essay. In January 2017 Federer beat Rafa Nadal in the Australian Open final. It was as if time stood still. DFW wrote about the 'tics' which both men exhibited in the same matchup in 2006. Nadal's are the better known, even to an apathetic, occasional, watcher of the game.

DFW's words from ten years ago could have been describing the final on January 29, 2017: (p121)
"Nadal and the Swiss are both in all-Nike, up to the very same kind of tied white hankie..Federer smoothing and fussing with the bits of hair that fall over the hankie is the main Federer tic TV viewers get to see"

Tracy Austin's anodyne descriptions of excellence can be found in most autobiographies published for subsequent generations of sports stars, each expounding on their five minutes of fame{5}

•The qualifying rounds for lesser known players are still very much in evidence on the circuit, little changed. (the 'qualies' are the defining portrayal of journeyman Michael Joyce) {6}

Commercialisation continues; possibly more in-your-face than ever. In 2017, on-court winner and loser, and referee, and sponsor, and umpire, speeches are obligatory. Nadal (who made a very gracious runners up speech) notably rounded off with his final words being a thank you to his personal sponsor, Kia Motors.

{1} I am sure that other high quality novels built around sporting greatness do exist. The only one that immediately comes to mind is Don De Lillo's Underworld

{2} I do wonder if DFW's footnotes would be as necessary, or as successful, in today's reading world, of the Kindle and the immediacy of the dictionary lookup functionality?

{3}Agassi, or Agassi's ghost writer, ironically, are known to have referenced DFW's essay on Tracey Austin, with its insipid cliche ridden style and determined not to follow suit. Agassi's own autobiography Open is widely regarded as being one of the most stimulating sports biographies produced (published in 2009).

{4} I watched Mark Knowles on a number of occasions, at Wimbledon, and like DFW was open mouthed at his bristling, confrontational style. DFW says (p74) "Knowles seems to me to belong on a Locked Ward for people with serious emotional and personality disorders" {#1}

{5} The generation of precocious, pubescent, girls very much in evidence at this time has now largely disappeared, once the scale of physical and emotional damage became evident. (Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati were two other high visibility American girls who burned out young in similar vein to Tracy Austin).

{6} memorably described by DFW (p47) "The realities of the men's professional tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well presented cut of restaurant sirloin"

{#1} of 2017's crop of tennis player discontents, Australian Nick Kyrgios is the natural successor to Knowles for pure brattisness.

If DFW had had the chance to return to the tour again today, 2017, as an accredited tennis journalist, what subject matter would he focus on?

No Americans Here When DFW was writing there were American tennis champions at the highest level. There had been for twenty years or more. Today the sport is more global and the top players form a veritable League of Nations.
How and why do small nations, like Switzerland, and Serbia produce so many recent champions? With the exception of the Williams sisters in the women's game, tennis is notable for the dearth of American contenders.

DFW's tennis essays highlight the reality that sports/ tennis superstardom, is very rarely accompanied by off court depth of character. In which case DFW is too critical about Agassi's persona.

Indeed, if David Foster Wallace himself had been rather more than a "near- great junior tennis player", then Infinite Jest might never have seen the light of day.

A great collection of essays, by a master in the art of writing.

Profile Image for Joel Hill.
87 reviews1 follower
October 7, 2020
Okay, I'm all in on David Foster Wallace! I actually went in to this set of essays with little to no knowledge about Tennis and very little interest in the sport. Despite my previous indifference the author kept me invested from cover to cover.

I don't know if I'd recommend this to everyone. It's not exactly thrilling, and it's dense with facts and footnotes that were sometimes overwhelming.

Overall I'd say this collection is like a long road trip with the author. He takes you on a journey through a place he loves and points out all the important bits along the way. Parts of it are a slog and you just need to get through them because you have a destination he wants you to get to, but overall the journey is something you look back on fondly and really there was no other way to get where you were going anyway.

Anyway, yeah, 5/5 and I want more.
Profile Image for Päivi Metsäniemi.
481 reviews30 followers
March 23, 2022
Olen lukenut tenniksestä huomattavan paljon, erityisesti verrattuna siihen että "pelasin" sitä viimeksi ala-asteella yhdellä kesäleirillä, ja olen katsonut sitä elämässäni joitakin minuutteja. Rakastan kuitenkin hyvää urheilukirjallisuutta, ja sitä tämä todella on. DFW kirjoittaa aiheesta kuin aiheesta viiltävän älykkäästi, ja tällaisessa asiakirjallisuudessa alaviitteet elävöittävät. En tajunnut tietenkään tästä puoliakaan, mutta saan siirrettyä DFW:n kokemukset erityisesti penkkiurheilusta omiin suosikkilajeihini.
Profile Image for Mallika Saharia.
50 reviews84 followers
May 8, 2018
As real as it can get. For those who've played tennis at some level or the other, you'll appreciate this book more than you would your own playbook. For those of you who haven't, this is a true window to the real world of tennis.
Profile Image for Dipanshu Gupta.
64 reviews
July 24, 2020
Ah Wallace! Made me fall in love with reading again. The most moving thing about good writing is prose structure. And Wallace seriously excels at that.
This book is a collection of five essays, written over time for various publications. His insights into tennis are second to none. His vocabulary and gift for painting a picture leaves you in awe and incredibly jealous. His habit of extensive footnotes is also present here. Sometimes its a funny quirk of his writing, the other times its an annoyance.
The physical copy of the book feels amazing. The cover is made up of special material and feels great in hand. The pages are of excellent quality. Would make a good gift for someone who appreciates tennis and good writing.
Profile Image for Daryll.
207 reviews1 follower
May 8, 2020
Game. Set. Match. Profound reading on sport, self, and so much more.
Profile Image for Sahil Gupta.
23 reviews4 followers
August 10, 2020
The experience of any event, hobby, or activity isn’t just limited to all that a computer qualifies with a string match for terms it knows are related to it. Instead, watching a tennis match for example is also about getting to the arena (and some first world city before that if you’re keen on a top talent embellishing a Masters final but hail from a country that has little mind space for anything other than cricket), absorbing the many sights, sounds that lead up to those few magical minutes but which also blend in and sometimes overpower that very experience. Being a fan of Federer or Borg or any other great for that matter, is also about being inspired by their humanness, their “tics” as DFW observes.

The essays in the book deal with DFW’s own journey as a junior tennis player, his experiences watching tennis live, his disappointment with ghost written “autobiographies”, the changing contours of top tennis with high-tech rackets and courts, the insipid commercialisation of top tournaments, his take on the yogic meditation and self-denial it takes to reach the top 100 level (which most fans used to watching the top 4 or 5 never absorb), and so much else that surrounds all of this.

No points for guessing I didn’t follow the order that the publisher has chosen for these free-standing essays and in fact started with the final one - with a title like ‘Federer as Religious Experience’, need I even start to tell you why? What helps DFW’s insightfulness - apart from an eye on steroids that literally captures 360 degrees in slow-mo not just two players punishing a green ball but also all that’s peripheral to it, and the ability to paint pictures with words more elaborate than my sober, not-on-steroid eye can see - is his experience of having played tennis at the junior level, of having chased a dream (albeit for a little while) that some of these players are living out.

I’d recommend this book emphatically to anyone who loves tennis or has at any point been even faintly interested in it.
7 reviews
April 15, 2018
I had high hopes of this book, as all the indications were that it would be my sort of thing: one of my favourite sports, a combination of fan-, player- and journalist-perspective in one writer, and a literature professor to boot. Unfortunately, the writing felt self-consciously clever-clever, aiming for erudite and elegant but too often ending up reading like a bright teenager trying to sound clever by throwing in some unusual words and writing sentences that were too long.

However, that was less objectionable than what was at best a strongly American-centric world view and at worst implicit racism. The casual characterisation of other nations ran throughout: Hlasek has 'a short square East European cut... like... a Nazi male model'; 'Ivanisevic is... surprisingly good looking - at least for a Croat'. The essay on Michael Joyce was the best in the book but was riddled with an American's patronising contempt for Canadians, griping about home players getting wild cards into the Canadian Open qualifiers (all host countries do it) and the going on to say 'It's stuff like Tennis Canada's logo you want to point to when Canadians protest that they don't understand why Americans make fun of them.' Not to mention the whole section about funny foreign names like Bhupathi, Lobo, Dosedel and Forget. Imagine! People in other countries don't have names that sound American! You want to take a pop at other countries' names? Why don't we start with America's obsession with using surnames like, um, FOSTER, as forenames?!

Some really great insights into tennis spoiled by some ill-judged, narrow-minded, opinionated nonsense.

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