The splashiest piece of sportswriting in my lifetime might be David Foster Wallace’s 2006 profile of Roger Federer, printed in the New York Times’s short-lived Play magazine. A wrinkled copy of it lived under my old Xbox console for years, so that I knew exactly where to revisit it. At the time, the essay felt electrifying and alien; a decade later it is still very good, but not even the best piece in String Theory, a frustrating but gratifying posthumous collection of Wallace’s nonfiction writing on tennis, which he played seriously as a kid and which figured seriously in his fiction. John Jeremiah Sullivan, who wrote the foreword to the collection, rightly calls tennis Wallace’s “most consistent theme at the surface level,” and the word “surface” here seems apt, given that most of these pieces mine a theme far more general and broadly human than just tennis. They are, in the end, concerned with talent.
The first essay is about Wallace discovering the limits of his own tennis talents, which, in a quietly self-deprecating and -congratulatory way, have to do with his ability to play intelligently in shitty Midwestern weather. The second, an uncommonly thoughtful review of an uncommonly thoughtless memoir by former world No. 1 Tracy Austin, is about the curious mental blinders that enable true athletic talent to find proper expression. The third (and best) is about the what motivates a player with excellent but not transcendent talent to soldier on in an industry that only really rewards the latter. The fourth (and only skippable one) is a hungry lay economist’s take on the concession stands at the U.S. Open; it is neither a meditation on nor the best display of talent. But the last is that classic about the freak talents of Federer.
Even if it’s concerned with self-consciously big themes, String Theory still serves as a master class on the recent history of its nominal subject, if just because Wallace never could write with anything less than encyclopedic authority about any topic. To read this book is to have huge swathes of tennis history—eras you never knew first-hand, rivalries extinguished before you were born, technologies now obsolete many times over—clinically and intricately dissected. There’s a level on which that’s the impressive part. Reading this also, though, involves confronting the more overwhelming elements of Wallace’s style: The constant footnotes used to squirrel away tidbits juicy enough for the main text; the weird reliance on the word “weird” as a crutch; the slangy aw-shucks diction used to temper highfalutin’ analyses; the strained mathematical analogies that at best taste like empty-calorie cake frosting and at worst feel conceptually flawed.
Noting this doesn’t require joining in on the overcorrecting backlash against Wallace that seems fashionable lately; it just involves softening up to his tics. In any case it’s easy to be generous about them once you glance at the dates of original publication: 1991, 1992, 1996, 1997, with only the Federer piece filed after Y2k. If all his obvious tricks feel too often abused in self-aware writing these days, just remember that Wallace got there really early, and that his works were later strip-mined by wannabes.
In any case, what you’re really paying for in this book is Wallace’s ability to pay attention. That attention to detail might be his chief genius. You can completely set aside his grand overarching theories of Talent and still appreciate the acuity of his observations on physical phenomena and people. Read this if you want to know, in painstaking detail, what Agassi’s groundstrokes looked like and how they exposed his “hairy tummy” on the follow-through; or if you want an uncompromisingly precise account of all the variables at play in any single shot of tennis; or if you want to see a specific match point rendered in stroke-by-stroke fashion, which approaches the drama of actually watching tennis, with Wallace imputing subtle tactics to each whack of the ball; or if you want to see famous and forgotten human beings pithily (and often cruelly) profiled in the span of a single footnote or stray graf:
Michael Chang, twenty-three and #5 in the world, sort of looks like two different people stitched crudely together: a normal upper body perched atop hugely muscular and totally hairless legs. He has a mushroom shaped head, ink-black hair, and an expression of deep and intractable unhappiness, as unhappy a face as I’ve ever seen outside a Graduate Writing Program ... Czech former top-ten Petr Korda is another clastic-looking mismatch: at 6'3' and 160, he 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”).
The only structural flaw of String Theory is that when you take a writer as detail-oriented and exhaustive as Wallace, and and compress his decades-spanning writings on the same subject into one slim book, you’ll encounter a lot of repetition. Some of his observations and mini-essays echo themselves in these 138 pages. But that’s not much of a flaw, and in fact it’s a pleasure to see the same ideas reworked over time, to watch Wallace refine his sharply-observed takes over time. It’s apt that a book that explores the notion of talent in sport almost accidentally charts the growth of its author’s tremendous, and at times unspeakable, talent in writing.