Double Fault: David Foster Wallace, Tennis, and Learning Not to Care

A-J Aronstein in The Paris Review:

CourtsGlenn cultivated the persona of a tennis intellectual—something more than the average tennis pro. He smoked Benson and Hedges, ate an alarming number of Kit-Kat Bars, and lived in Brooklyn. He collected art and quoted Fitzgerald. On the occasion of my sixth-grade graduation, he gave me an inscribed copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology. He commuted to the club every day wearing blazers over black T-shirts and pleated khaki slacks, making for an odd juxtaposition with my father, whom I never saw wearing anything but tennis whites in the months between May and November.

For Glenn, tennis was a purely mental game, its problems solvable through a personal variation on psychoanalysis. He broke down my own palsied serve into three movements, suggesting that I mouth the words “I. DON’T. CARE!” in rhythm with them. He added that I should shout CARE! as I smacked the ball toward the earth. By getting me to renounce my emotional attachment, I guess he thought that I could free up mental energies to enjoy myself. There was something intoxicating about the idea that the mind could exert too much control over the body and that there could be freedom from the mind’s tyranny in the ability to let the body take the helm. But I never thought it was actually possible. It wasn’t until years later, when I found David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis, that I encountered what seemed like a written version of Glenn’s approach. Wallace scrupulously details the sport’s Euclidian logic, its between-the-ears acrobatics, its mid-August sweatiness, its production of near-divine feats of athletic perfection. He obsesses over the labor and dedication necessary to become a world-class anything, and though he’s writing about tennis, he’s also writing about writing. The essays mattered to me precisely because of this connection, and I read them just as I was beginning to take my first stabs at translating childhood material into short fiction. Yet for Wallace, tennis entails intense aloneness, standing seventy-eight feet away from one’s opponent, warring within and against one’s own brain. Tennis represents an entirely individual struggle to wrest control from the mind: to be at once fully conscious of oneself and yet able to stop thinking. For me, tennis represented something else. Maybe history, inheritance. Maybe just trying to figure out what to pass on (a service motion, a slice backhand, a tennis club, a philosophy). I’m still figuring it out. Glenn died the same summer I started reading Wallace. My father scattered his ashes in the Har-Tru on court three, where Glenn tried to teach me not to care and seems to have taught me the opposite.

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