Reading Conventions by Patrick McGintyThe Conventionalist

The Tennis Narratives of the Williams Sisters, David Foster Wallace, et al.

By Patrick McGinty

Venus and Serena Williamshis only appears to be an article about tennis. I swear I won’t dwell on the actual game. This article is more about what I’m going to refer to as “tennis narrative,” i.e. the representation of tennis in art. If this sounds extremely boring—country clubs, sweater vests, white clothes on white players—that’s because it is. Or at least was. It is (was) so boring that it only took one paragraph of mid-90s fiction to give it a much-needed mercy killing.

Let’s do this backwards and start at that glorious end. Near the end, anyways. The end is February 1, 1996, though several key events all happen right around that time which lead to that neat little paragraph.

The first event was Venus Williams turning pro on October 31, 1994. At 14, she’d only play a few matches for the next year or so. By 1997, she’d crack the top 100 then 50, reach her first U.S Open final, and finish the year ranked No. 22 in the world. An expressionless base-liner. Limbs for days. I once imagined her as my older sister.

The second event pushing us toward that tidy paragraph was Serena Williams turning pro on September 25, 1995. She wouldn’t play a pro match in ’96 but cracked the top 100 in ’97. A hurricane, both in style and temperament. The younger sister. I once had a nightmare in which her and Saddam Hussein bombed my house from a command center in Florida. In tennis circles, the Williams sisters are old news at this point. They have been the most compelling story in tennis (and quite possibly all of sports for over a decade), yet anything over a decade old tends to cease being compelling. Children are forever small miracles to their parents, but the miracle is viewed differently at age 3 than 13. In terms of how long tennis fans have watched them, Venus and Serena just got their license. We don’t talk about them every day. We’d just prefer they not wreck things as we’re about to enter the age of fond reminiscence. Because reminisce we will. Tennis fans do in fact view the Williamses as something of a miracle, and we do so for three main reasons, doled out in various percentages depending on your slant:

1) they are the most famous sibling athletes ever (The Mannings of the NFL would need to adopt Tom Brady to compete. Tiger Woods would need a twin of the same ability.)

2) they have utterly dominated their sport, both in quality of play (serving faster than many players on the men’s tour) and the rapacity with which they claim titles (22 grand slam titles in all, often at the expense of the other. Let’s not even discuss doubles.)

3) they are African-American.

Notably African-American. Raised in Compton, California. The “ghetto Cinderellas of the lily-white tennis world,” according to their father. The reason I’ve been thinking about the Williams sisters and tennis narrative lately is due to a recent New York Times Magazine cover story by John Jeremiah Sullivan, in which he stands in awe at the surreality of an “African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow.” “Lay siege” is what I keep thinking about, specifically. Sullivan is not only talking serves and volleys here. Equal prize money for women’s tennis, funding for inner-city kids’ recreation: there are innumerable causes that the Williams have promoted either publicly or simply via their success. The stodgy old white mask of this thing I’m calling “tennis narrative” might not be of much interest to the Williamses, but I do think they’ve overthrown it. Shattered it. Left it in their wake along with their opponents. And I think this overthrow, in both life and art, is perfectly (weirdly?) distilled on page 17 of a book published on February 1, 1996, a book that takes place in part at a tennis academy and is probably the first if not only book readers think of when they hear “tennis narrative.” David Foster Wallace concludes the first section of Infinite Jest with Hal in an ambulance, wondering both about the weekend’s tennis tournament and his forthcoming stop at the ER:

“I will play either Stice or Polep in Sunday’s final. Maybe in front of Venus Williams. It will be someone blue-collar and unlicensed, though, inevitably—a nurse’s aide with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses me as jou—who will, looking down in the middle of some kind of bustled task, catch what he sees as my eye and ask So yo then man what’s your story?”

Infinite Jest

For all that Infinite Jest foresees—Netflix, for starters—the inclusion of Venus Williams always strikes me as the boldest. Just think: the book is published in ’96, no doubt drafted for years prior. Venus Williams has not yet won a professional tournament. From age 11 on her father won’t even let her play junior tournaments despite a 63-0 record. She’s a rumor. A myth. And perhaps to Wallace, she would always stay that way in the text, just another of his many footnotes. I don’t know how to explain the presence of Venus Williams early in the novel other than to guess that the presence of anything remotely new or fresh on the tennis scene must have caught Wallace’s eye.

What’s the new “story,” then, from that paragraph forward? It’s one-thousand pages of form-fracturing prose, yet to be replicated. It’s sixteen-plus years of improbable dominance by two sisters from Compton. In and around 1996, the Williams sisters alter the sport’s narrative possibilities, Wallace it’s representational ones vis-a-vis fiction. Because no one else to my knowledge has done so, I’m going to pronounce that within that paragraph on page 17 we witness the death of conventional tennis narrative and the birth of...something. We’ll get to that.

If this seems hyperbolic in the extreme—if it seems dramatic to declare the “death” of a genre based on two sisters and a book—you have no idea just how bad things had gotten.


Tennis and the Meaning of Life

Tennis and the Meaning of Life: A Literary Anthology of the Game might have the most unfortunate publication date of all-time. The anthology catalogs short stories and poems revolving around tennis and includes work by Barry Hannah, Wallace Stegner, Paul Theroux, William Trevor and others, and as decorated as the lineup is, what we have here is a literary stillbirth. Editor Jay Jennings explains in the introduction that in compiling the pieces he “avoided tennis novels, partly because there have been no great ones.” Tennis was published on April 25, 1996. The compilation copyright is ’95. One imagines Mr. Jennings becoming friendly with a bottle of scotch night after night and maybe even pre-noon as those reviews of Infinite Jest took up residency in newspapers and magazines. The main problem with Tennis is that the book could’ve come out in 1956 as easily at ’96, and I don’t mean to say that it’s “timeless.” But before I get too heated, I want to make one point quite clear: these are excellent stories. Any time I see a career-making win on television, one in which the victor seems stunned to have reached such heights, I confess that I morbidly conjure up Peter LaSalle’s suicidal FBI agent wandering the shoreline with a .38, wondering if anything could ever eclipse the defeat of his most skilled tennis rival. In Somerset Maugham’s story, an eighteen-year-old cannonballs into sin at a tournament in Monte Carlo and lives to brag the tale to his father. When I bike past a tennis court, I often listen for the “guitarlike chords” of fuzz-on-string, a line I’ve always remembered from an Irwin Shaw story in the collection. Despite my forthcoming gripes, there are in fact a few relatable characters present. The declining physical skills, financial uncertainty, and even emotional instability of Kent Nelson’s protagonist in “The Tennis Player” will ring uncomfortably true for most young adults, especially for a fellow teaching pro like myself who also “had given in to telling people what they wanted to hear.”

Yet even the best stories suffer from a certain peculiar problem: even tennis fanatics like me acknowledge that it is difficult to root for people you do not like.

And my oh my are there people you will not like. Mr. Jennings suggests in the introduction that such writers were drawn to tennis by ready-made language like “love, fault, service, [and] return.” A convenient but grave oversight is the concept of advantage. A not-all-that-decontextualized collage character in the anthology could be “a partner in a firm of repute” “who learned the game as a social accomplishment,” “whose grandfather had been president of the United States Lawn Tennis Association” and whose “Jag was already in the driveway.” I haven’t bothered to include the beverages of choice to say nothing of the attire. It is of little surprise the word “club” appears 62 times in the collection.

The collection has the feel of a society building statues of its leaders as rebels pound the palace gates. Again: Tennis comes out on April 25, 1996. The Williams sisters will be in the top 100 within the year. Wallace is on book tour. Yet story after story is safely back at the club, tucked away as neatly as a white sweater vest. The rare left turn in the anthology can be counted on to hang a right soon enough. Is that a glimmer of hope in the Theroux story? We’re in Singapore? The tennis player is Japanese? Terrific. Spread your wings, tennis narrative. Leave New England! Fly! What’s that? The narrator is English? Him and his buddies are actually rather arrogant, and, oh dear, no, a little racist? Is tennis really such an awful sport the world over?

And yet, to repeat: these are sharp stories. I’ve returned to the anthology so often over the years that I can quote lines from almost every selection at a moment’s notice. The anthology succeeds in representing the game and its players, and what I’m really struggling with here is that as much as I want the anthology to be a stillbirth, as much as I want it to be from 1956 and not 1996, it isn’t. It is an accurate rendering of the people I once worked for, the people I’ve played and play with, and, of course, myself. I wish Jennings’ line about avoiding tennis novels bit him in the ass like a serve from Serena, but aside from Infinite Jest, what else has truly lasted? I reread McPhee’s nonfiction. I enjoy Jon Wertheim at Sports Illustrated and I liked the Agassi autobiography. But fictionally? Is it possible that a scenario like the Williamses is literally and literarily unimaginable? I keep waiting for a player or book to come along and pick up the promise of that paragraph, to invalidate the anthology published four months after it, yet year after year, Mr. Jennings’ collection holds up well.

Even if tennis narrative is doomed to remain at the clubs—and I should point out that Infinite Jest’s tennis scenes take place at such an Academy, albeit an extremely wacky one—there is plenty to mine. Scenes featuring the privileged sect of society do not lack in narrative possibility, certainly when membership and stature are on the line. As fixated as I may seem on the bizarre and the non-elite, I acknowledge that the privileged classes are full of real human drama. Jonathan Baumbach has it right in “The Return of Service” when he says that “Large advantages had always seemed to me intolerable burdens.” But the Sullivan essay sends me back to Tennis and Tennis inevitably sends me back to that paragraph from Wallace. It feels so predictive. Instructive, even. Tennis is changing. Tennis in art is changing. I was sure of it. I took the words as hidden scripture: “It will be someone blue collar.” But it seems more likely that both the book and the sisters are two comets in separate worlds. Miracles. Stories too peerless to improve upon.

Patrick McGinty's fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. In the summer issue, he reviewed Jon McGregor's story collection This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You.