David Foster Wallace at the U.S. Open, 20 Years Later
In 1995, David Foster Wallace strolled the grounds of the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows for what would become "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open." Twenty years later, not much has changed.
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There were moments, strolling the 2015 U.S. Open, when it felt like you landed in a large shopping mall that just so happened to have some tennis courts.
From the moment you stepped off the train at Flushing Meadows, Maria Sharapova (who withdrew from competition due to an injury) was looking at you from American Express banners. Once in the park, Citizen clocks reminded you of the time you've spent in line for a Grey Goose martini. Emirates flight attendants stoically braved the heat in their red hats and beige polyester suits while smiling from vendor booths. Nike tennis whites were omnipresent, as if spectators were prepared just in case Serena Williams asked them to be her new hitting partner.
No one covered the off- and on-court circus of the U.S. Open like David Foster Wallace did with his Tennis magazine piece, "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open." His man-about-court stroll through the 1995 U.S. Open turns 20 this year—although it wasn't published until 1996—and, like much of his other writings ("Democracy" and his other tennis works can be found in his On Tennis collection of essays), the piece continues to strike a chord with readers.
Wallace took his own life on September 12, 2008. In the years since his death, as Laura Miller recently pointed out in The New Yorker, Wallace has become a darling of "litchat," a literary legend that has become at times precious and whose memory gets, at times, distorted.
"That Wallace was not widely regarded as a 'great' writer during his lifetime is quickly being forgotten," Miller wrote. "Of course, a writer's reputation changes over the years—that's to be expected. Literary works grow or shrink in significance as the moment in which they were created recedes and as new readers bring new sensibilities to bear on them. But our memory of a reputation's evolution itself changes, or at least that's what seems to be happening in the case of Wallace."
Miller's words echo in Wallace's legacy as a tennis reporter, as well. His sportswriting, like his fiction, enjoys a cultlike following today, but his take on the 1995 U.S. Open was largely overlooked at the time, Glenn Stout, the series editor of the Best American Sportswriting, said.
"The funny thing is, it's not in our series," Stout said. "I couldn't even tell you if it was submitted or put forward. I just don't think it was on the radar."
"Democracy" came at a time when longform was moving away from newspapers and more into magazines (before eventually going online). More journalists were coming to sportswriting from less conventional, outside-the-locker-room backgrounds like Wallace's, rather than the trenches of local team beat reporting.
Wallace's sportswriting made the nerds care about the jocks and the jocks care about the nerds. He understood the majesty and folly of both cultures, as he sat somewhere between the two. A former top junior player himself, Wallace brought a level of tennis knowledge to "Democracy," but still created jokes with the reader, both in and out of the text.
"I think he was nudging it that way," Stout said. "You simply could do things in magazines that you couldn't do in newspapers." (Perhaps, then, it's fitting that Grantland, one of ESPN's homes for sports storytelling, has embraced Wallace's beloved footnotes unlike any other non-academic publication.)
"Democracy" is simple in concept and complicated in execution. Wallace's assignment was to roam the grounds of what today is the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. In his hands, though, the third round of men's singles that year between Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis became a metaphor for the Peloponnesian War, Sampras's serve "a kind of angry eel getting ready to writhe," Philippoussis "malevolent but cyborgian."
Much of the zaniness, of course, was off-court, and Wallace wanted to take his readers there: the "big zucchini of the Fuji Inc. blimp" floating through the sky, a nod to former New York City Mayor David Dinkins rerouting landing patterns at LaGuardia, the weeding out of the Hamptons crowd, Chase ATMs with "controls of NASA-like sophistication."
Roaming the 2015 U.S. Open grounds, little has changed in two decades. People in Ray Bans still argue with ticket takers. At the entrance, the non-Colombian people handing out foil packets of Colombian Coffee have been replaced by American Express-backed pedicabs, for those who aren't interested in traversing the modest gangplank from the 7 train to the gates. Wallace noted in 1995 the new Infiniti automobile on a complicated stand greeting visitors; now there are three Mercedes, still on a complicated stand, still greeting visitors. Concessions are still "doing business on the sort of scale enjoyed by coastal grocery and hardware stores during a Hurricane Warning."
Some things have changed, of course. Mary Jo Fernandez, who was warming up on the Stadium Court in Wallace's day, is now commentating for ESPN. The cost of T-shirts, bottled water, and hot dogs have shot up. And good luck trying to bring in a cooler today. While a media pass still allows reporters to roam the grounds freely, no one—reporter or otherwise—roams as freely as they used to. Event security, especially after September 11 and later the Boston Marathon bombings, have made sniffing dogs, metal detectors, gaggles of police and security officers commonplace at the U.S. Open. Burning trash cans can no longer be seen in the park; a fraction of the gypsy cabs of yore are on hand. The bigger the athlete, the bigger their entourage of handlers, including public relations experts, are likely to be in tow.
Even the fact that Tennis ran Wallace's story nearly a year after it was reported runs in sharp contrast to today's army of reporters huddled together in the press room below Arthur Ashe Stadium, tweeting away over every bead of Roger Federer's sweat. (In the time between Wallace reporting the story and its publication, Infinite Jest hit bookshelves.) Wallace explored the grounds before the smartphone era, but he probably would have thought selfie sticks were a hoot, to say nothing of the tennis-related Missed Connections on Craigslist.
Perhaps the beauty of the U.S. Open is that for a brief moment, New Yorkers, be they bellhops or billionaires, are united in their chatter of the theater of sport, a phenomena Wallace alludes to in "Democracy." Jay Jennings, who went with Wallace to the U.S. Open in 1995 and edited "Democracy," recently donated some of the edited pages of the piece to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
"So much of it holds up," said Jennings, who attended this year's U.S. Open, as well. "I've always been surprised by the embrace of the tournament by New York. He described that—the cab drivers talking about the Open, even though you think of tennis as an elitist sport. It plays into New York's polyglot atmosphere. There weren't that many writers then who were embracing the sport as a way to investigate larger things in our culture. That made Dave unique, that he could explore culture through the prism of tennis."
Jennings said he still finds himself returning to the piece.
"I'm pleased people are still reading it," he said. "I did what editors do, which is come up with a flimsy premise. And I let him run with it. He did exactly what I wanted him to do and I still remember being really excited when it came in."