“Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” is an autobiographical essay that was originally published in Harper’s in 1992 as “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornados.” The essay describes the rise and fall of Wallace’s junior tennis career as a young teenager growing up in the Midwest (Philo, Illinois, to be exact). Wallace explores in this essay what made him “near-great” (3), or, to put it differently, what prevented him from becoming a truly great tennis player.
Wallace introduces his tennis game with the strange statement: “I was at my very best in bad conditions” (4). These “bad conditions” refer to the intense heat and the cracked and slanted outdoor courts of the Midwest, but most of all they refer to the wind by which “Midwestern life is informed and deformed” (5). Wallace claims he did well in tennis early on because, instead of shooting imaginative shots into the corners of the court like a professional tennis player would, he actually shot down the middle of the court so the wind would never blow his balls out of bounds. Wallace won tennis matches by hitting these easy shots and waiting for his opponent to get so frustrated that he would psyche himself out of the game. Over time, Wallace even gained the ability to use the wind to throw his shots to unexpected places. “I had gotten so prescient at using stats, surface, sun, gusts, and a kind of stoic cheer that I was regarded as a physical savant, a medicine boy of wind and heat, and could just play forever, sending back moonballs baroque with spin” (11).
However, Wallace’s childhood tennis strategy was soon revealed to be a mere illusion of skill. One setback of Wallace’s junior tennis career was that he was a bit of a late bloomer, and this affected him not only physically, but also mentally, as he describes his bitter rivalry with a fellow tennis player and friend, Gil Antitoi: “I got steadily better; Antitoi, unfairly assisted by an early puberty, got radically better” (11). Wallace’s earlier ability to maintain a meditative concentration throughout a game of tennis was proven empty once he started to face some real competition, and this realization made him profoundly sad; he felt betrayed by his body and unsure of his place in the world: “My vocation ebbed. I felt uncalled” (13). Wallace believes that his slow growth affected his mental state so intensely because he was raised in environment that thrives on the growth that is the farming enterprise of the Midwest.
This "puberty-angst" was just one of Wallace's problems; the second was of “material alienation” (15). When Wallace was eventually removed from the imperfect courts to which he had adapted so well, he found himself unable to adjust his strategy. Once he began playing indoor tournaments on perfect courts (with opponents much bigger than him, no less), Wallace realized that his “stoic cheer” (11) didn’t stand a chance against his technically skilled junior adversaries. “Playing on a perfect court was for me like treading water out of sight of land: I never knew where I was out there” (14). When Wallace was removed from the chaos of wind and heat he began not only to lose games, but also to lose the balance and comfort he had found in tennis. Without trying to sound self-pitying, Wallace explains how he started to “resent [his] physical place in the great schema” (13). Wallace here seems to be confronting the issue that every child faces as he gets older and realizes that his view of the world will never be as simple as it once was. This teenage angst that accompanies Wallace’s “identity shifting from jock to math-wienie” (14) is universal to most people’s transitions from childhood to adulthood.
The confusion that accompanies a change in identity and a loss of talent is reflected in the (potentially exaggerated?) story of the tornado that interrupts sixteen-year-old Wallace as he drills with his rival Antitoi one afternoon. “Tornados were, in our part of Central Illinois, the dimensionless point at which parallel lines met and whirled and blew up. They made no sense… Tornados are omnipotent and obey no law. Force without law has no shape, only tendency and duration” (17). This particular cyclone was felt nowhere else in Philo, Illinois, and seems to have descended onto Wallace’s tennis court just to teach him a lesson. Up until this tornado blew Wallace and Antitoi against a fence, Wallace had been unable to understand why the other tennis players he knew went through puberty before he did. But this funnel-less and decentralized twister forced him to realize that nothing in life happens as you expect it will, effectively marking his entrance into adulthood.
Wallace dramatically states, “Midwest junior tennis was also my initiation into true adult sadness” (12). This is due less to his hopeless losing streak than it is to the realization that the illusion of childhood, with its boundaries and easy wins and ways to enjoy the chaos around you, cannot last forever. As the tornado physically shocks Wallace, it also leaves him with a new mentality: that tornados, and life, “obey no rule, follow no line, hop up and down at something that might as well be will” (20). The final line of the essay, “Antitoi’s tennis continued to improve after that, but mine didn’t” (20), might imply not only that Wallace recognizes the randomness of the modern world, but also that, as an "adult" (whatever that means), he accepts it.
Wallace believes that his love of math in college grew out of his homesickness for the Midwest: “I’d grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids – and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weird topographical drain-swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits and spins atop plates… Calculus was, quite literally, child’s play” (3). He says he appreciated this planar landscape more than other Midwesterners because he was born in Ithaca, NY, and so the straight lines were new and foreign to him at such an impressionable age. As foreign as they were at first, being contained within the straight lines of the tennis court eventually put Wallace at ease, rather than make him feel boxed in. Although he was not particularly athletically gifted, Wallace explains: “I knew my limitations and the limitation of what I stood inside, and adjusted thusly” (4). However, as every childhood must come to an end, this power did not last forever. As Wallace advanced the ranks in tennis, he began to play in more perfect environments (less heat, less wind, more serious players), and strangely began to perform worse. “The point is I just wasn’t the same, somehow, without deformities to play around” (15). Tennis is a powerfully mental sport, and the obstacles that had been imposed upon Wallace created inner boundaries concerning how he thought about his game. Once these obstacles had been lifted, Wallace’s “Zen-like acceptance of things as they actually were, on-court” (10) became ineffectual, and he did not have the ability to develop a completely new type of mental game. This great expansion was too much for him to deal with. This difficulty in adjusting to a wider playing field is comparable to the difficulty of any child growing up and recognizing the adult world for what it is: large, almost unbounded, and chaotic. Here, the tornado throws Wallace and Antitoi into a fence, literally pushing the boys into their boundaries. Wallace’s boundary at this point has stopped being something he finds comfort and calm in and instead becomes something against which he is trapped. Most parents will say that is important for children to have boundaries, but Wallace recognizes how scary it can be for a child once these boundaries are lifted.
Tennis was a form of escape for Wallace. He writes that tennis was “a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing” (19). The hours of drills and the ability to seemingly exit the body in a meditative-type state were necessary for his game, but also a source of pleasure and calm for Wallace. He was proud of his “Zen-like” (10) ability to ignore the frustrations the wind caused, shooting unimaginative balls down the middle of the court that would be blown into corners, and this gave him a leg up on his opponents. All of this was lost, however, when Wallace began to lose his matches. His game’s drop into chaos from his previously meditative game is parallel to the occurrence of the tornado, which popped out of nowhere and completely threw off the trance-like balance between Wallace and Antitoi’s drills. As in many of Wallace's works of both fiction and non-fiction, the characters in "Derivative Sport" are attempting a kind of escape, but in the end are unable to completely leave themselves or escape their boundaries.
Wallace is known to insert his opinions and morals quite noticeably into his works of non-fiction, and so reading a fully autobiographical essay brings out some of his best self-reflections. Reading “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” not only supplies the reader with the origin of Wallace’s childhood nickname that he holds secret in “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All.” Reading this essay also gives the reader insight into Wallace’s passion and knowledge of tennis while reading essays “Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness” and “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” and, of course, his novel Infinite Jest.