I mentioned several days ago how completely different it is to see pro tennis players in person, versus watching them on TV. A reader writes to remind me that the late David Foster Wallace insisted on this point in two of his most justly-famed pieces about tennis.
His best-known tennis article was this one, four years ago in the NYT Magazine, about the unique beauty and intelligence of Roger Federer on the court. That's worth reading again during Wimbledon. It makes me regret that I've never seen, and probably will never see, in-person Federer play singles in his prime. (Unusual live doubles viewing here, and below.)
But if anything, this article, from ten years earlier in Esquire, is even more interesting about the almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else. In this piece Wallace describes the first time he'd ever seen professionals in person. He had been a serious junior player, and he says that from watching TV he thought he might be able to hit with some of the lesser pros. The article chronicles his discovery, at a satellite/qualifying tournament featuring players he had never heard of, that he was wrong. Sample:
If you've played tennis at least a little, you probably have some idea how hard a game is to play really well. 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.
Both articles stand up very well. The Esquire one also has charming time-warp notes like, "Agassi, who is twenty-five," and, "Pete Sampras [then age 24] is mostly teeth and eyebrows in person and has unbelievably hairy legs and forearms -- hair in the sort of abundance that allows me confidently to bet that he has hair on his back and is thus at least not 100 percent blessed and graced by the universe." Thanks to reader RG in Tokyo.