The String Theory

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

A few weeks ago Buckethead mentioned that CoolTools had compiled a list of the best magazine articles ever, and I started reading the then-top article on the list, David Foster Wallace’s “Federer As Religious Experience” — which didn’t especially move me.

Then, today, Aretae mentioned a “beautiful essay on tennis from 1996″ that he came across via Tyler CowenThe String Theory, also by David Foster Wallace and also on the list. It looks at the very, very good players in the top 100 who still struggle in obscurity:

The realities of the men’s professional-tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin. For every Sampras-Agassi final we watch, there’s been a weeklong tournament, a pyramidical single-elimination battle between 32, 64, or 128 players, of whom the finalists are the last men standing. But a player has to be eligible to enter that tournament in the first place. Eligibility is determined by ATP computer ranking. Each tournament has a cutoff, a minimum ranking required to be entered automatically in the main draw. Players below that ranking who want to get in have to compete in a kind of pretournament tournament. That’s the easiest way to describe qualies. I’ll try to describe the logistics of the Canadian Open’s qualies in just enough detail to communicate the complexity without boring you mindless.
The qualie circuit is to professional tennis sort of what AAA baseball is to the major leagues: Somebody playing the qualies in Montreal is an undeniably world-class tennis player, but he’s not quite at the level where the serious TV and money are. In the main draw of the du Maurier Omnium Ltée, a first-round loser will earn $5,400, and a second-round loser $10,300. In the Montreal qualies, a player will receive $560 for losing in the second round and an even $0.00 for losing in the first. This might not be so bad if a lot of the entrants for the qualies hadn’t flown thousands of miles to get here. Plus, there’s the matter of supporting themselves in Montreal. The tournament pays the hotel and meal expenses of players in the main draw but not of those in the qualies. The seven survivors of the qualies, however, will get their hotel expenses retroactively picked up by the tournament. So there’s rather a lot at stake — some of the players in the qualies are literally playing for their supper or for the money to make airfare home or to the site of the next qualie.

You could think of Michael Joyce’s career as now kind of on the cusp between the majors and AAA ball. He still has to qualify for some tournaments, but more and more often he gets straight into the main draw. The move from qualifier to main-draw player is a huge boost, both financially and psychically, but it’s still a couple of plateaus away from true fame and fortune. The main draw’s 64 or 128 players are still mostly the supporting cast for the stars we see in televised finals. But they are also the pool from which superstars are drawn. McEnroe, Sampras, and even Agassi had to play qualies at the start of their careers, and Sampras spent a couple of years losing in the early rounds of main draws before he suddenly erupted in the early nineties and started beating everybody.

Still, even most main-draw players are obscure and unknown. An example is Jakob Hlasek a Czech who is working out with Marc Rosset on one of the practice courts this morning when I first arrive at Stade Jarry. I notice them and go over to watch only because Hlasek and Rosset are so beautiful to see — at this point, I have no idea who they are. They are practicing ground strokes down the line — Rosset’s forehand and Hlasek’s backhand — each ball plumb-line straight and within centimeters of the corner, the players moving with compact nonchalance I’ve since come to recognize in pros when they’re working out: The suggestion is of a very powerful engine in low gear. Jakob Hlasek is six foot two and built like a halfback, his blond hair in a short square Eastern European cut, with icy eyes and cheekbones out to here: He looks like either a Nazi male model or a lifeguard in hell and seems in general just way too scary ever to try to talk to. His backhand is a one-hander, rather like Ivan Lendl’s, and watching him practice it is like watching a great artist casually sketch something. I keep having to remember to blink. There are a million little ways you can tell that somebody’s a great player — details in his posture, in the way he bounces the ball with his racket head to pick it up, in the way he twirls the racket casually while waiting for the ball. Hlasek wears a plain gray T-shirt and some kind of very white European shoes. It’s midmorning and already at least 90 degrees, and he isn’t sweating. Hlasek turned pro in 1983, six years later had one year in the top ten, and for the last few years has been ranked in the sixties and seventies, getting straight into the main draw of all the tournaments and usually losing in the first couple of rounds. Watching Hlasek practice is probably the first time it really strikes me how good these professionals are, because even just fucking around Hlasek is the most impressive tennis player I’ve ever seen. I’d be surprised if anybody reading this article has ever heard of Jakob Hlasek. By the distorted standards of TV’s obsession with Grand Slam finals and the world’s top five, Hlasek is merely an also-ran. But last year, he made $300,000 on the tour (that’s just in prize money, not counting exhibitions and endorsement contracts), and his career winnings are more than $4 million, and it turns out his home base was for a time Monte Carlo, where lots of European players with tax issues end up living.

“Seeing” plays a vital role in tennis:

Except for the serve, power in tennis is not a matter of strength but of timing. This is one reason why so few top tennis players look muscular. Any normal adult male can hit a tennis ball with a pro pace; the trick is being able to hit the ball both hard and accurately. If you can get your body in just the right position and time your stroke so you hit the ball in just the right spot — waist-level, just slightly out in front of you, with your own weight moving from your back leg to your front leg as you make contact — you can both cream the ball and direct it. Since “…just the right…” is a matter of millimeters and microseconds, a certain kind of vision is crucial. Agassi’s vision is literally one in a billion, and it allows him to hit his ground strokes as hard as he can just about every time. Joyce, whose hand-eye coordination is superlative, in the top 1 percent of all athletes everywhere (he’s been exhaustively tested), still has to take some incremental bit of steam off most of his ground strokes if he wants to direct them.

If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably have some idea how hard a game is to play really well, Wallace — who played at a pretty high level — says:

I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn’t. And television doesn’t really allow you to appreciate what real top-level players can do — how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area seventy-eight feet away over a net, hard. He can do this something like more than 90 percent of the time. And this is the world’s seventy-ninth-best player, one who has to play the Montreal qualies.

So, how do you get that good?

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

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