Incandenza took a lot of bringing along. He didn’t used to quite have the complete game to be able to do this. Slice the court up into sections and chinks, then all of a sudden you see light through one of the chinks and you see he’s been setting up the angle since the start of the point. It makes you think of chess.’
The journalist blew her red nose. ‘ “Chess on the run.”
‘Nice term.’ (659)
I come from a long personal history of involvement in the skateboarding subculture. I got my first banana board for $2 CAD, a little red plastic thing from a garage sale across the street. I graduated to a large 1980’s style beast shortly after that had a gap in the griptape with a skull graphic and the text “OUTLAW.” After that, my dad made me a deck out of aluminum (which was theoretically really cool, but actually significantly heavier than a normal 7-ply maple wood deck, despite our lightness-of-soda-can thesis), and I bought some legit Venture trucks and Spitfire wheels off this kid Kyle for a dumb amount of money, probably getting ripped off, if I recall correctly.
It wasn’t long after that I got wise, bought a legit Plan B deck off another friend, and was doing kickflips in the front driveway, taking me about three months of repetition and failure before I landed my first one. Some other friends from my neighborhood also got into skating around the same time, but we weren’t cool enough to bring our boards to school, our new daunting 8-12th grade high school, in which skaters constituted the upper echelon of the adolescent social class coolness stratum. We listened to bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Weezer, and other alternative acts, but these skaters, even ones our age, were deep into really underground rap and punk, stuff we’d never heard of, and we were intimidated.
In 9th grade, one of the apparent leaders of the skate kids my age socially courted me, attempting to draw me into the group, which I eventually was, leaving some of my friends behind. I started bringing my board to school and skating with them at every break and lunch, finding out pretty fast that I could hang, trick-wise, and quickly fell in with them, doing the things skater kids do on weekends, much to parental chagrin (my own parents’). Team sports quickly dissipated for me. I was a pretty hardcore basketball kid from 5th to 8th grade, but rapidly adopted the anti-establishment, -rabid-jock-machismo attitude that characterizes virtually all skateboarders. I was now on a self-alone pursuit on a sandpapered log with four urethane wheels.
After high school, I got sponsored by a local skate shop, got my picture on the side of city bus for one of their ads (along with the rest of the skate team), had a part in the shop video, got a job teaching skateboard day camps to 6-15 year-olds, became a volunteer leader and camp counselor for a local skate club (for which I’m still on the steering committee), and was, needless to say, deep in the scene. Around that time, I weirdly also got really into chess, one of the older guys in the skate community having taught me after I graduated. I took out chess books from the library, watched Searching for Bobby Fischer a lot, and basically just nerded out on chess theory between trips to the skatepark.
And then so in 2007 I read Infinite Jest for the first time, and I was stunned. All of this stuff about tennis—a sport to which I’d pretty much never given a thought—actually sounded cool. I started thinking of parallels between it and skateboarding: solitary dependence, endless repetition, the eventual satisfying engagement of muscle memory, the same pock sound of snapping an ollie and hitting a forehand winner, the flailing limb dreams that shock you awake during unintentional naps on the couch, etc. Dave Eggers’ claim in the 10th anniversary edition foreword of Jest that “there were times, reading a very exhaustive account of a tennis match, say, when I thought, well, okay. I like tennis as much as the next guy, but enough already” (xiv), didn’t quite resonate with me, as I found myself enjoying these passages more and more as the book went on. And then the line “chess on the run,” and I was hooked.
I got a stick and started playing with friends, finding out when I started that I had a horrendous time with hitting a consistent forehand shot, but oddly, that like little “pint-sized” seven-year-old Tina Echt, I was “a true cannibal off the backhand side” (511), hitting all my winners with an aggressive low-flat double-hander. Then Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience” came across my browser one day, and I started watching ATP tournaments, just to see what Wallace was talking about. He was right; having now played some casual tennis and knowing the physics involved, watching Federer was a “bloody near-religious experience,” in the words of a tournament press bus driver Wallace quotes.
So we saw Federer play Stan Wawrinka live at the Rogers Cup tournament in Montreal in 2009, and they somehow botched our tickets (making us miss the first 14% of the match [yes, I did the math]), and so they comped us free tickets to the entire week’s 2010 Rogers Cup in Toronto, which we went to, obviously. There I ate my heart out daily, feasting on virtually every Federer, Nadal, Monfils, and Djokovic match in the gaudy humidity of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, that kind of fuel-exhaust shimmer to the air Wallace always describes radiating off the aluminum stands.
On the recent Episode 11 of The Great Concavity, our friend Alex Sinclair asked us if we thought Wallace was a great sports writer, to which I say Yes, resoundingly so. If an author can persuade a too-cool-for-school, anti-sport skateboarder like myself to become fascinated with not only playing, but watching a sport like tennis (which is no small commitment, come time for each of the four Major tournaments each year), they’re clearly doing something well with their prose.
I’ve pretty much now, at age 33, retired from an active lifestyle of skating, the old bones not having the structural integrity they once did (I fractured my elbow a few years back on a super routine trick and that was pretty much the coup de grâce of my casual career). I now opt for the (somewhat) more forgiving sports of tennis and (as an indirect result of Wallace getting me into tennis) hockey. A guy I play casual drop-in hockey with a couple times a week hilariously sets up his GoPro each game and puts “highlights” on YouTube, which I’ve joked will need the synonym-heavy approach of Jim Troeltsch to describe common occurrences on the ice.
There’s a great deal more I could say on this topic (nets and fences and opponents being mirrors, letting what is unfair teach you, how to sweat, etc.), but like Dave Eggers, I’m sure you like tennis as much as the next guy (though I now like it more), so enough already.