Tennis, Anyone?

A look at three new books about the sublime sport


It must be the season that prompts books about tennis. Three recently published ones are reported here.

Love Game: A History of Tennis from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon by Elizabeth Wilson (University of Chicago Press) seemed to be a book tennis players need to have, but it tries too hard. As one could say about the game itself, a plodding writing style makes for more work than pleasure. Wilson opens with a quote comparing tennis to sex, a nice and promising thought from Lionel Shriver. But then the book proceeds in as dry a fashion as Popular Mechanics.

Wilson provides endless research into the origins of tennis. Yet readers may feel more bored than informed — even those of us who love and play the game. Who cares to know that Roscoe Tanner “permed his hair”? Has the sport truly become “McDonald-ised”? That the ball was hit by the hand, not a racquet in the Renaissance? That “the term love is mysterious”? That tennis in Berlin was “in tune with the polymorphous sexual culture” of the city? Indeed.

Her allusions to psychology, history, sociology, and culture might have been a good idea, but there are so many of them that the book becomes weighed down by endless facts. Applying Max Weber’s theories to tennis can put readers to sleep. And summing up the pleasures and problems of the woman’s game as inextricably flowing from “the looks of the players” is highly questionable. The merchandising of it, sure, but “pleasures and problems”?

Wilson introduces the key players in the history of the game, notes their contributions, includes some good photos, touches all the bases. But her book reads like Wikipedia: It’s all there, but it is not an engaging read and it doesn’t go anyplace interesting. Her insights disappoint: “A tennis match is like a crime novel because until the end is reached the outcome is unknown.” Like basketball, baseball, and every sport, I would add.

Tennis — like all sports — is entertainment. Love Game isn’t.

Late to the Ball: Age. Learn. Fight. Love, Play Tennis. Win. by Gerald Marzorati (Scribner) offers a different approach to explaining the game. It is as much about growing older (mid-fifties in this case) and staying involved with life as it is about tennis, though becoming a good player in midlife is at the center of the author’s experience. Aging and tennis provide an interesting canvass for literary exploration. At 82, I am playing tennis as well as I ever have, though I am aware that could change tomorrow. One can learn strategy, technique, mind control, and physical preparation regardless of age.

All sports enthusiasts face the same irony: In a moment, one can drop from excellence to inaction. The professional basketball player at the top of his game who goes up for a shot and comes down on a twisted knee faces the end of his career overnight. Tennis is one sport, unlike most, where players can participate into older age.

Marzorati examines his experiences thoughtfully and even discusses the psychological elements that prompted his midlife adventure of mind-and-body development. Yet all the details of his experiences were more interesting to him than they will be to readers, I would guess.

String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (Library of America) is a fast and entertaining read. Composed of four essays by Wallace and charmingly introduced by John Jeremiah Sullivan, tennis lovers will have fun reading a genius' comments on players and action we are all familiar with. Especially worth the price of the book is Wallace's account of his childhood playing tennis in Philo, Illinois.

He was an avid, pretty good competitive player. But more captivating is his remembrance of the sociology, weather, and wind in small-town America, with reflections on physics, strategy, and geometry, and explanations of the idiosyncrasies of playing the game then and there. It is brilliant writing, and even readers who are not players will appreciate how a gorgeous writer describes the sport in ways no one else might. In his introduction, Sullivan remarks that "tennis is a good sport for literary types," and surely it is in Wallace's hands.

If you’re going to take only one tennis book to the beach this summer, take Wallace!

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney and literary agent. His column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. He tries to play tennis at least three times a week and is always looking for games.

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