SPRING TRAINING MONTH #6: The String Theory, by David Foster Wallace (1996)

Art by Julianna Brion

Art by Julianna Brion

Type of Media: Journalism

I used to think sports journalism was stupid. Well, maybe not stupid, but definitely a place where you don’t find great writing. Real journalists write about wars and political scandals and local events, after all. You bring on the sports writers because their stuff sells well and funds the more important work.

Of course, like pretty much anyone who dismisses an entire profession without fully understanding it, I was wrong. I didn’t personally care for sports, and I let that attitude trick me into thinking that they aren’t important. But they are. Sports generate tons of money, give people local pride, work as a cultural export similar to music and artwork, and the journalists who cover sports produce great writing just like writers in any other field. If you’d like a demonstration, a quick lesson on how amazing sports writing can be, David Foster Wallace’s articles on tennis are where you should start. Specifically, with his 1996 piece for Esquire magazine, “The String Theory”.

While Wallace gained a lot of sportswriting accolades for his 2006 article “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”, it’s “The String Theory” that stands apart as something really special. Rather than heaping praise on a tennis superstar at the top of his game like “Religious Experience”, “The String Theory” is mostly concerned with the second-tier players of the pro circuit. Focusing on Michael Joyce, 79th best men’s tennis player in the world at the time the article was written, Wallace looks at the life of a man who has completely devoted his life to a sport, but who will never receive the money and fame that the top-level pros like Andre Agassi get.

Set at the qualifiers (or ‘qualies’) for the ‘96 Canadian Open - a tournament to determine which pros get to play in the main tournament two days later and filled with journeyman pros, some of whom are literally playing so they can afford food and airfare to the next competition - Wallace flits about between descriptions of matches he sees, interviews with Joyce, and meditations on the greatness that surrounds him. 

Wallace, a former competitive tennis player and complete tennis nerd, brings a lot to the table as the reader’s eye into the world of qualies. He’s a good enough player to realize that the pros at the tournament completely outclass him, and describes their play as nearly superhuman. To illustrate his point he writes several play-by-plays of individual points that read like an excited kid relating the plot of the newest Marvel movie. The depth of his tennis knowledge is astounding as he rattles off statistics, history, and tennis Snapple facts like some kind of omniscient tennis lorekeeper.

His journalistic eye is also incredibly sharp, and characteristic of David Foster Wallace’s writing “The String Theory” has a lot of deviations that expand on minute details in ways that make the world of his subject seem all the more rich. You might be surprised when you see that this article has 46 footnotes stretching out the page below the main text, but trust me when I say that it is worth reading every one of them. The one where he compares modern athletes to holy men because they both share a proximity to perfection that we’re in awe of and reward is particularly inspired.

And of course at the center of the piece there’s Michael Joyce. Wallace’s portrait of him is informed by both awe and pity, as Joyce plays a sport Wallace loves at an unimaginably good level, but had to sacrifice basically everything else to get that good. Several times Wallace laments how small Joyce’s world must be, so dominated by one focus, but Joyce doesn’t seem to mind. He brushes off Wallace’s suggestions that he only loves tennis because his father made him practice at least four hours a day when he was a kid, saying that doesn’t matter. Joyce loves tennis. Joyce lives for tennis. Joyce will play tennis, and when he can’t compete anymore Joyce will coach tennis. Such is the joy and sacrifice of being one of the 100 best people in the world at something.

You can read “The String Theory” in full on Esquire’s website (although the footnotes aren’t linked, so be prepared to do a lot of scrolling). Unless you have absolutely no interest at all in both tennis and David Foster Wallace, I suggest you give it a read. If you haven’t delved at all into sports writing, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.