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 was 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 being at the bottom of the top after all he has sacrificed?”
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 (220 fn 10). 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” (220 fn 11). 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, stopping his smiling and joking only 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 condescendingly 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). Indeed, it is true that Joyce sacrificed a college education and the intellectual and social skills that come with that. But, Wallace concludes that it is precisely this sacrifice, this “radical compression of his attention and self” that “has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art” (254). Joyce “will say he is happy and mean it” (255) because he is ignorant of any higher happiness. Joyce’s devotion to tennis is more than a desire to be a tennis celebrity. He wants only for tennis to “define him” (255), and in that sense he is a complete and happy man. Wallace seems to conclude that ignorance is bliss, but remains ambivalent as to whether or not anyone would want to be in Michael Joyce's position.
Wallace considers solipsism and how it inhibits communication in many of his works, including “Tennis Player Michael Joyce.” Wallace is earnest in his attempt to communicate with the reader and to convey who Joyce truly is with the reader. The problem of solipsism, however, prevents him from really describing what it is like to be Michael Joyce. It even prevents Michael Joyce from explaining what it is like to be Michael Joyce. This inability to communicate seems to be caused by Joyce’s lack of self-consciousness. In order to be a world-class athlete, Joyce has to be solipsistic; his thoughts are so intensely focused on his tennis career that he’s almost completely unaware of the thoughts or perspectives of the people around him. The solipsism of Joyce is that he’s devoted his life to a pursuit that almost none of us really understand on the same level that he does. It’s why he can never quite explain to Wallace why he has committed himself to this near-impossible pursuit; the explanation is experiential and unique. Wallace additionally points out that if Joyce was forced to really consider everything that he had to give up to get to where he now is, that line of thinking would be detrimental to his ability to focus and perform well in a match: “I’m kind of awed by Joyce’s evident ability to shut down lines of thinking that aren’t to his advantage” (222 fn 15). There are not many people who have devoted their lives so completely to a single pursuit in the unselfconscious way that Joyce does, making his perspective personal and self-contained, difficult to explain and difficult to relate to. By the end of the essay, Wallace seems uncomfortable with this conclusion because it is a lonely greatness that is proof of one of Wallace’s greatest concerns: that it might be impossible to truly communicate with another human.
Professional tennis players wear the gear of the companies that sponsor them as a form of advertisement for the company. Michael Joyce, for example, wears only Fila shirts and shorts and is also paid $1000 for every match that he wears a Powerbar patch on his arm (238). Sponsors for the tournament, such as du Maurier cigarettes (the ‘title sponsor’), Bell Canada, BMW, Tropicana, and Evian, “are as important to ATP tournaments as they are to collegiate bowl games” (215 fn 4). Both the sponsors for the players and for the tournament depend on the fact that these matches will be televised, thus displaying their brand names to the most consumers.
But for a tournament to get the most media coverage, and thus the most sponsors possible, tournament officials need to draw as many top players to compete as they can. In this sense, the top players are also treated like brands: “The really top players not only have their expenses comped but often get paid outright for agreeing to enter a tournament. These fees are called ‘guarantees’” (221 fn 15). The reason these players get paid just to compete is that they draw a bigger crowd and more media coverage, and thus will attract higher paying sponsors. It is apparently a great debate in the tennis world as to whether guarantees prevent conspicuous transactions from taking place or if they unjustly favor certain players. But pro tennis is, after all, a business, and so the guarantees would probably be given out whether they were legal or not. According to Wallace, 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). Maybe he should be glad that he has not been reduced to a mere brand name and can be motivated by the fact that he must win to earn.
The media coverage of the Canadian Open, and any other ATP tournament for that matter, plays a huge role in the success of the tournament. Sponsors seem to care less about the fans present at the tournament than they care about the millions of people who may be channel surfing on ESPN.
As important as televised coverage of the tournament is to its success, Wallace chastises the reader for not knowing of Michael Joyce or the importance of the qualifying matches when he mentions “the distorted standards of TV’s obsession with the Grand Slam finals and the world’s top five” (224). As the essay progresses, it becomes evident that the only reason most people have never heard of Joyce is precisely because his matches are rarely televised. Wallace does not turn this TV-caused dilemma into as large a moral argument as he does in other essays; however, he certainly makes us realize that the media is designed only to report the most lucrative stories. “The realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin” (217). If we had trusted only the televised broadcast of the 1995 Canadian Open, we would have missed a great deal of what an ATP tournament is really about.
As Bruce Barcott wrote for Salon magazine, “The only completely untrue sentence in David Foster Wallace's new nonfiction collection occurs on page 241, midway through a profile of rising tennis pro Michael Joyce. ‘This article,’ he writes, ‘is about Michael Joyce and the untelevised realities of the Tour, not me.’ The truth is, every David Foster Wallace piece is about DFW first, its subject second.” Barcott here is blunt, but correct. Wallace’s distinct voice permeates this piece. Joyce’s story serves as a backdrop for Wallace to infiltrate the mind of his reader and leave him pondering the same philosophical questions that Wallace himself must have wondered while writing the essay, i.e. How can a man be happy at the bottom of the top? What sort of role does television and advertisement play in our entertainment? Does the media prevent us from appreciating the people who most deserve our attention? Wallace may seem a bit self-insistent, but his voice is worth listening too nonetheless.
Jordan Ellenberg wrote in a review for the Boston Phoenix, “I wasn't interested in tennis before I read this essay. I'm not interested now. But for an hour, tennis was gripping -- not as a metaphor for art or free will or what have you, but tennis as itself, as an array of connected details, as a technological entity.” Indeed, to say the least, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce” is an entertaining essay that will captivate anyone. But it is also more than that. Ellenberg continues, “The critical essays here are… not really critical essays at all, but accounts of Wallace's struggle to surpass (what he sees as) the smart glibness of his early work… Michael Joyce is explicitly presented as a kind of artist, whose unselfconsciousness is a model for the post-ironic novelist to emulate.” Wallace’s writing has the same unselfconscious feeling to it, which allows even a reader who knows nothing of tennis to connect to the text in a way he would not have thought possible.