Sunday, August 20, 2006

David Foster Wallace Serves It Up

This morning’s New York Times had a welcome surprise with David Foster Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience.” Wallace is one of the most innovative writers around, and if you like his style, this piece won’t disappoint.

About Wallace’s style—well, let’s take an extended example:

Tennis is often called a “game of inches,” but the cliché is mostly referring to where a shot lands. In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels. The same principle explains why even the smallest imprecision in aiming a rifle will still cause a miss if the target’s far enough away.

By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you.9 This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.

(If that last paragraph’s density attracted you, look for the 258-word sentence in the piece’s second paragraph.)

In our excerpt above, we have several interesting features:

  1. The first paragraph is a nice conceptual turn. Wallace renders quaint the “game of inches” cliché by explaining the micrometric stakes of each racket impact. Wallace then consolidates the concept with the rifle analogy, which makes it all seem obvious.
  2. “Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline.” You probably don’t know what your “deuce corner’s baseline” is, but the meaning doesn’t matter. Unlike the usual use of jargon, which is like a locked door to outsiders, Wallace’s use of jargon here is more like wallpaper. It contributes to the atmospherics of a room you’re already in.
  3. He is addressing you directly—yeah, “you.” It juxtaposes well with the paragraph’s technicalishness. (No, that’s not an official word, but somehow it’s right for this occasion.)
  4. As for the long middle of our excerpt’s second paragraph, it’s a big set-up. He enumerates the myriad factors that go into returning a pro serve only to deliver the punchline that you’ve only got 0.41 seconds to do the right thing—“the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.”
  5. Finally, at the end of the excerpt’s second-to-last sentence, is a marker for footnote 9. That footnote is a preemptive strike against those who might question whether Wallace’s calculation of 0.41 seconds suffers from omitting the additional distance the ball travels from the bounce. This footnote has its own footnote. Such footsie with footnotes is a Wallace trademark. If only one could trademark a trademark.

On a larger level, Wallace makes some structural gambits. For example, a child that contracted cancer at age two appears first as a bit of innocuous reportage, then later as a jarring counterpart that interrupts the story, and finally in the last paragraph, not of the main piece but of the footnotes, as an explicit connection to the main theme.

A breezy read this piece is not, yet Wallace’s technical skill brings a conversational tone to the most entertainingly arcane points. Call it obsessive-casual.

So set aside 10 minutes and read the piece. Even if you can’t get into Wallace’s style, you’ll find enough little gems along the way to make it worthwhile—for example, the description of Wimbledon line judges “in their new Ralph Lauren uniforms that look so much like children’s navalwear.”

Check it out: Federer as Religious Experience


  1. I loved reading this article as both a fan of literature and tennis. Nice to see kudos for it from others in the world.

  2. There's no doubt that DFW knows a lot about tennis, and he's doubtless a much better player than I am. So it's surprising to find him committing a howler:
    On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively
    No! Such angling will make the ball travel slightly down or up relative to the horizontal. Topspin happens when the racket face travels from high to low as the ball is struck; slice when it travels high to low.