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Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness

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Summary

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.

“Still, most main-draw players are obscure and unknown” (223). And yet, Joyce seems to be one of the happiest men in the tournament, only stopping to smile and laugh when he is playing a match. Not only is the man happy, but he is unbelievably earnest and open for someone who earns a living in such a competitive environment. Wallace wonders how Joyce remains so stoic and congenial in the face of such stress: “For a while I thought that Joyce’s rather bland candor was a function of his not being very bright” (227). But after spending more time with Joyce, Wallace comes to realize that “Michael Joyce’s affectless openness is a sign not of stupidity but of something else” (228). That “something else” turns out to be “more than just a matter of talent or practice” (245). It is “the radical compression of his attention and self” that “has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art” (254). Joyce has been denied the temptations that drive most of us astray from our lofty goals from an early age, and so the world of tennis really is all he knows and is all that he needs to be happy. Of course, Joyce strives to advance his ranking and become one of the top five players that people the world over, tennis fans or not, will recognize as a celebrity. But his devotion to tennis is more than that, because he is willing to sacrifice so much just to pursue his dream of fame, just to “let it define him” (255). At the beginning of the essay Wallace asked the reader to imagine what it would be like to be Michael Joyce. By the end of it, however, it seems impossible to sustain this level of commitment in the face of such adversity. “I think he both lucky and un-. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well” (255).

Themes/Motifs

Voice

Context

Criticism

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."