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Center-court seats: Five books for tennis lovers

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Dunst Wimbledon
Laurie Sparham

Despite the chaos and flooding over the weekend, the U.S. Open kicked off today without a hitch. Tennis is the only sport I regularly watch, mostly because it’s a fascinating, emotional sport. Angry outbursts like Serena Williams’ tirade against a lineswoman at the 2009 U.S. Open are shocking but the frustration behind them is somewhat understandable. Traditionally, tennis has a reputation for being rather stately and civilized to a fault, but it’s really a sport that can bring out a person’s competitive nature, even over a seemingly friendly rally. In movies, especially comedies, players use the sport to send an aggressive message to one another (see Bridesmaids, Mr. Deeds). In literary contexts, tennis can play a more nuanced role in exposing a character’s passive aggression or self-defeating tendencies. Tennis requires pounding a projectile at an adversary, exposing and taking advantage of an opponent’s shortcomings — but these epic battles can take place in a waspy, country club setting, complete with tennis whites. All fertile ground for below-the-surface tension.

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959)

In Roth’s iconic novella, Neil Klugman’s first date with the beautiful Brenda Patimkin begins as Neil watches her finish up a tennis game with a friend. Neil’s observations about the match reveal not so much Brenda’s character, but rather Neil’s perceptions of her vanity and pettiness — an inauspicious beginning to a fraught romance.

“Hello, Neil. One more game,” she called. Brenda’s words seemed to infuriate her opponent, a pretty brown-haired girl, not quite so tall as Brenda, who stopped searching for the ball that had been driven past her, and gave both Brenda and myself a dirty look. In a moment I learned the reason why: Brenda was ahead five games to four, and her cocksureness about there being just one game remaining aroused enough anger in her opponent for the two of us to share.


The darker it got the more savagely did Brenda rush the net, which seemed curious, for I had noticed earlier, in the light, she had stayed back, and even when she had had to rush, after smashing back a lob, she didn’t look entirely happy about being so close to her opponent’s racket. Her passion for winning a point seemed outmatched by an even stronger passion for maintaining her beauty as it was. I suspected that the red print of a tennis ball on her cheek would pain her more than losing all the points in the world.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)

David Foster Wallace knew all too well the pressures of being a young tennis champion; so it’s no surprise that he made the Enfield Tennis Academy a primary setting for a novel about a dystopian future. One of the many accomplishments of this 1,079-page masterwork is the introduction of Eschaton, an incredibly complicated nuclear wargame that melds game theory and practice serves. Read a tiny portion of the explanation of the game, or better yet, watch it play out before your eyes in video form.

Every year at E.T.A., maybe a dozen of the kids between maybe like twelve and fifteen — children in the very earliest stages of puberty and really abstract-capable thought, when one’s allergy to the confining realities of the present is just starting to emerge as weird kind of nostalgia for stuff you never even knew120120 — maybe a dozen of these kids, mostly male, get fanatically devoted to a homemade Academy game called Eschaton. Eschaton is the most complicated children’s game anybody around E.T.A.’d ever heard of. No one’s entirely sure who brought it to Enfield from where. But you can pretty easily date its conception from the mechanics of the game itself. Its basic structure had already pretty much coalesced when Allston’s Michael Pemulis hit age twelve and helped make it way more compelling. Its elegant complexity, combined with a dismissive-reenactment frisson and a complete disassociation from the realities of the present, composes most of its puerile appeal. Plus it’s almost addictively compelling, and shocks the tall.

This year it’s been Otis P. Lord, a thirteen-year-old baseliner and calculus phenom from Wilmington DE, who ‘Wears the Beanie’ as Eschaton’s game-master and statistician of record, though Pemulis, since he’s still around and is far and away the greatest Eschaton player in E.T.A. history, has a kind of unofficial emeritus power of correction over Lord’s calculations and man-date.

Eschaton takes eight to twelve people to play, w/ 400 tennis balls so dead and bald they can’t even be used for service drills anymore, plus an open expanse equal to the area of four contiguous tennis courts, plus a head for data-retrieval and coldly logical cognition, along with at least 40 megabytes of available RAM and wide array of tennis paraphernalia.

Double Fault by Lionel Shriver (1997)

Shriver described her novel as “not so much about tennis as marriage, a slightly different sport.” Tennis serves as an obvious but effective metaphor for a competitive marriage between Willy (short for Wilhelmina) and Eric. Willy has been training in tennis since she was four, whereas Eric picks up a racket for the first time at age 18. On their one-year wedding anniversary, Eric beats Willy in a friendly match, sending Willy in a downward spiral as Eric climbs the ranks.

40 Love by Madeleine Wickham (2011)

Originally published as The Tennis Game in the U.K., this comedy of manners finds a well-heeled but nasty party of six at each other’s throats at a tennis weekend. It’s an airy read with a lot more cocktails than tennis, but it’s fun to see these vile social climbers get their comeuppance.

The Prince of Tennis by Takeshi Konomi (1999-2008)

Sort of the tennis version of The Karate Kid, this enormously popular manga series has been adapted for television, film, stage, and gaming systems.