The five greatest pieces of tennis writing:
‘On Being John McEnroe’ by Tim Adams (published in 2003):
One reviewer rightly described this book – an extended essay, really – as an elegy to a vanished world. It contains some great lines: ‘For the English, tennis is not so much a sport as a fortnight’. But, more than anything, it contains all the colour and atmosphere of the 1980s. This is a great tennis book, because it’s not just about tennis.
‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ by David Foster Wallace (an essay published in the New York Times in 2006):
The late Foster Wallace could be caustic: he once suggested that Andre Agassi, a player he “loathed with a passion”, was “about as cute as a Port Authority whore”. Yet the novelist and essayist, who had been a decent junior player in his youth, was infatuated with a tennis player with Switzerland.
“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re okay.”
‘Levels of the Game’ by John McPhee (published in 1969):
The book, a study of Arthur Ashe’s defeat of Clark Graebner in the semi-finals of the 1968 US Open, explores how a player’s background influences their on-court thought processes and style of game.
As Graebner said of Ashe: “He’s an average negro from Richmond, Virginia. There is something about him that’s swashbuckling, loose. He plays the way he thinks. He’s not a steady player – he plays the game with a lackadaisical, haphazard mannerism of a liberal. He’s an underprivileged type who worked his way up.”
And Ashe had this to say of Graebner: “Graebner is a straight, true Republican. He was spoiled rotten when he was a child. He’s highly-strung and can be very demanding. He’s a nice guy, but he has become accustomed to instant gratification. He plays stiff, compact, Republican tennis.”
Martin Amis’s essay in The New Yorker (published in 1994):
Amis was riffing on the cult of ‘tennis personalities’. “I have a problem with – I am uncomfortable with – the word personality and its plural, as in ‘modern tennis lacks personalities’ and ‘tennis needs a new star who is a genuine personality’. But if, from now on, I can put ‘personality’ between quotation marks, and use it as an exact synonym of a seven-letter duosylabble starting with ‘a’ and ending with ‘e’ (and also featuring, in order of appearance, an ‘ss’, an ‘h’, an ‘o’ and an ‘l’), why, then, personality and I are going to get along just fine.
“By turning my TV up dangerously loud, I once heard McEnroe mutter to a linesman (and this wasn’t a grand slam event but one of those German greed fests where the first prize is something like a gold helicopter), ‘get your f—— head out of your f—— [personality]‘.”
‘Open’ by Andre Agassi (published in 2009):
Some have questioned whether there is too much of the ghostwriter (the Pulitzer Prize-winning J.R. Moehringer) in this book, or whether he pushed this too far? Did Agassi really hate tennis, and hate it with a dark and secret passion? There can be no doubt, though, that this is a superbly-written ‘autobiography’, and one which contains some entertaining stories about his use of crystal meth, his reliance on hair-pieces, and how his father, in a hot rush of road-rage, once wagged a hand-gun at the driver in the next lane.