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String Theory

On Tennis

By David Foster Wallace
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String Theory by David Foster Wallace

String Theory (2016) is a collection of essays about tennis by David Foster Wallace. The best players in the world sacrifice their lives so that they can entertain us, but their sacrifice elevates them to a level of greatness that the rest of us lowly mortals will never achieve.

Key idea 1 of 6

David Foster Wallace served up more than fine prose.

David Foster Wallace is known as one of the most talented authors in modern American fiction. But his career could have easily gone another way. Wallace actually started out as a competitively ranked junior tennis player. The other kids even gave him a nickname, Slug, as a sort of backhanded compliment. He was lazy and slow, but, somehow, he still smashed his opponents.

Wallace explains that he used the microclimate to his advantage. He grew up in Philo, Illinois, deep in the midwest, where it’s even windier than Chicago, famed throughout the world as “The Windy City.” Wallace learned not to fight the winds when he played. Instead, he harnessed their power.

And it wasn’t just in tennis that he used the winds. Wallace liked to ride his pushbike around town, tacking across the wind by using an outstretched, book-laden arm as a sail. Needless to say, the rest of the town thought he was crazy.

He applied this atmospheric expertise to his game on the court. The other kids were, without a doubt, stronger and more technically proficient than he was. They could fire shots off into the corners. But Wallace adopted a different strategy. He lobbed high, slow and straight, letting the wind wreak havoc.

Wallace had another slippery trick up his sleeve. He sweated. Profusely. Although inordinate perspiration isn’t usually regarded as a talent in day-to-day life, it worked wonders for Wallace on the tennis court. By the end of play in the clammy Illinois summer, Wallace wouldn’t be the prettiest sight – but, with enough water and salty snacks, he could play on and on.

His slicked and preppy opponents, on the other hand, would soon begin to wilt in the heat, sometimes even passing out. Wallace called himself “a physical savant, a medicine boy of wind and heat, [who] could play just forever.”

That's quite some racket.

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