By Abigail Cain
Considered one of the best books on tennis ever written, John McPhee’s 1969 publication Levels of the Game chronicles Arthur Ashe’s win over Clark Graebner in their 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match. The book offers a nearly stroke-by-stroke account of the match, opening with the first serve and concluding with the winning shot. McPhee interweaves his reporting with in-depth profiles of the two competitors, exploring their disparate upbringings and the racial and sociopolitical undercurrents surrounding their match. In McPhee’s book, Ashe and Graebner become archetypes: Graebner a privileged, white conservative and Ashe a liberal, against-all-odds African American who comes to dominate a traditionally white sport.
In the book, Graebner compares his style with Ashe’s in a description laced with the racial and political undercurrents of the time. He says:
“I’ve never been a flashy stylist, like Arthur. I’m a fundamentalist. Arthur is a bachelor. I am married and conservative. I’m interested in business, in the market, in children’s clothes. It affects the way you play the game. He’s not a steady player. He’s a wristy slapper. Sometimes he doesn’t even know where the ball is going. He’s carefree, lackadaisical, forgetful.… Negroes are getting more confidence. They are asking for more and more, and they are getting more and more. They are looser. They’re liberal. In a way, ‘liberal’ is a synonym for ‘loose.’ And that’s exactly the way Arthur plays.”
In contrast, Ashe describes his opponent:
“There is not much variety in Clark’s game. It is steady, accurate, and conservative. He makes few errors. He plays still, compact, Republican tennis. He’s a damned smart player, a good thinker, but not a limber and flexible thinker. His game is predictable, but he has a sounder volley than I have, and a better forehand—more touch, more power. His forehand is a hell of a weapon. His moves are mediocre. His backhand is underspin, which means he can’t hit it hard. He just can’t hit a heavily top-spun backhand. He hasn’t much flair or finesse, except in the lob. He has the best lob of any of the Americans. He’s solid and consistent. He tries to let you beat yourself.”
David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Levels of the Game can be seen in the current exhibition Literature and Sport, on display through August 4. Megan Barnard, Associate Director for Acquisitions and Administration, will lead a curator’s tour of the exhibition on July 31 at 7 p.m.
David Foster Wallace’s archive is held at the Ransom Center.