Wallace was commissioned by ‘‘Esquire’’ to write an article covering the 1995 Canadian Open and its top players and matches, and what results of that commission is a sort of profile of world-class tennis player Michael Joyce. 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.
Joyce is an underdog at the Canadian Open; if he wants the fame that the top tennis players have, he must overcome two great obstacles. First, in order to qualify for the real tournament, he must compete in the qualifying rounds. The “Qualies” are the “pre-tournament tournament” (216) that determine which additional eight players will compete in the top matches. Wallace mildly chides us outsiders for never having heard of Qualies because they usually “feature the best matches of the whole tournament” (217). But, even if Joyce wins the Qualies to compete in the main draw, tennis tournaments are seeded so that lower ranked players are matched up with higher ranked payers early on, in order to prevent upsets and making it nearly impossible for a low seed to advance very far in the tournament (fn 10, 220). The qualifier has also played “his fourth or fifth match in three days, while the top players usually have had a couple days with their masseur… to get ready for the first round” (fn 11, 220). The way Wallace describes the system of qualifying matches for the major tennis tournaments almost makes it sound as though Joyce has no hope for the world-wide fame that tennis superstars enjoy. (And, from today’s perspective, we know that he doesn’t achieve the fame of Agassi or Nadal.) Even though it seems impossible for someone to get out of the Qualies and become part of the main draw, Wallace reminds us that the disadvantaged group of qualifiers “are also the pool from which superstars are drawn” (222), so each player is justified in having some amount of hope.
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."