Center-court seats: Five books for tennis lovers
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.
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.
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.