This essay, previously published in Esquire in 1996 as “The String Theory,” was commissioned to be a profile of world-class tennis professional Michael Joyce as he competes in the 1995 Canadian Open. Although Joyce’s proficiency on the tennis court would awe any spectator (he is ranked 79th in the world at the time this essay was written), Wallace chooses to focus the article more on Joyce’s obscurity in the world of tennis and the implications this has on American culture and values. Wallace writes that Michael Joyce “is undeniably a world-class tennis player, but he’s not quite at the level where the serious TV and money are” (221). Wallace asks his reader to try to imagine how difficult it would be to actually ’’be’’ Michael Joyce in 1995 by exhibiting both Joyce’s talent and his relative anonymity. “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard” (214). And yet, Wallace is also careful to point out that most people reading this essay have probably never even heard Michael Joyce’s name. After imagining Joyce’s situation, the reader naturally asks himself, “How can Joyce endure the lack of recognition?” Wallace attempts to answer this question, but must first describe in detail the many other challenges that Joyce faces as a professional tennis player.
As Jordan Ellenberg notes in a review for the Boston Phoenix, "Michael Joyce is explicitly presented as a kind of artist, whose unselfconsciousness is a model for the post-ironic novelist to emulate."