How David Foster Wallace Changed Sportswriting Forever

Commentary, Editor's Choice, Roger Federer, Sportswriting

In 2006, David Foster Wallace profiled a young Roger Federer for the New York Times in ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience.’ In the article, Wallace systematically reinvents what is possible in sportswriting. Seven sentences in, he unfurls a single sentence of almost 300 words describing a single point between Federer and Andre Agassi in the 2005 U.S. Open finals.

David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace (By Steve Rhodes – originally posted to Flickr as David Foster Wallace, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4788606)

Wallace characterizes the beginning of their rally by referring to the “butterfly shape” of their movements around the court and how the two players “yank” each other back and forth on the court, as Agassi tries to “wrong-foot” Federer:

…which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands.

(From ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience,’ New York Times, 8/20/2006)

As you read, your mind instinctively visualizes the feats of physical brilliance and the sequence of physical action that only Federer was capable of at the time, that Wallace captured on the page. Wallace had been a good junior tennis player, and what his body lacked in quick-twitch fibre, his mind made up for in its capacity for observational brilliance.

Federer’s “reverse thrust” forehand winner

Redefining Beauty

Wallace then redefines beauty as it relates to sport. Too often, athletes are feted because they are already icons. He moves past adulation to touch on the potential joy available to an alive being in a physical body with all of the physical possibilities that entails. He writes that “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” He has just introduced an element of metaphysics — the relationship between body and spirit — into sportswriting. His redefinition of beauty in relation to sport expanded the parameters of why we should pay attention to sports.

Federer, Wallace, and Slowing the Game Down

After establishing how quick Federer is and how blindingly fast the modern game is (he notes that a 130 mile-per-hour serve moves from server to returner in less time than it takes to blink your eyes twice), Wallace shifts into a lower gear. His initial sentences are propulsive, gathering velocity, and while the reader wants to linger and get deeper inside the game, he has intentionally held the reader on the outside. Now, though, things truly slow down. He marks pauses with short instructions: “imagine that,” “keep visualizing,” and “consider some of the variables,” as he walks the reader through returning a forehand serve:

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.

New York Times

More so than with slow-motion video (because you can re-read and re-create each moment from different angles in your imagination), you can freeze and hold these moments in your mind as you think through all of the variables that Wallace has just raised — the vertical and horizontal planes of the racket face angle, the milliseconds that decide where the return ends up, racket speed, and the spin of the ball. Just as important to us as readers is how phrases with the word “your” — as in “your racket,” “your groundstroke,” and “your return” — take us beyond visualizing these moments and into living these moments in our minds.

Federer the Chess Player

At the beginning of the article, Wallace mentions Federer’s ability to plan ahead in a point. Near the end of the article, he describes another single point, this time when Federer is down 2-1 in the second set of the 2006 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal. After detailing a long rally between the two players in which Federer incrementally and intentionally pulls Nadal off the centerline, repeatedly hitting to Nadal’s backhand (this is a different type of slowness). Wallace writes that Federer hits a “sharp-angled” backhand that is, “so heavy and blurred with topspin that it lands shallow and just inside the sideline,” beyond Nadal’s reach. This time, Wallace’s goal isn’t to describe Federer’s kinetic brilliance; it is to highlight Federer’s tactical intelligence as he begins to move Nadal into perfect position five shots before he finishes him off with the backhand.

Wallace took the conventions of sports profile writing, upended them, and redefined what the athlete profile can accomplish. Beneath the superlatives describing Federer and his game, Wallace created a new vocabulary and syntax for exploring how the human body, mind, and spirit moves through time and space. 

Although Wallace celebrates Federer, his goal is to move beyond adulation by placing the reader inside Federer’s body, mind, and game in a way that Federer might instantly recognize and affirm, but that he himself would never articulate in the way that Wallace does. Within Federer, tennis icon, is Federer, human being (like all of us) performing at the far reaches of what is humanly possible (unlike all of us, but representing the possibilities theoretically within all of us).

Roger Federer
Roger Federer (Tatiana from Moscow, Russia – CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0))

Wallace was a genius and one of the greatest minds of his generation. I am neither. But writing for The Hockey Writers, I intend to take a page from his playbook as I use writing to slow the game of hockey down, to get inside the game, and to place the reader in the game.

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