Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It only takes two to play a Grand Slam tennis final. It takes hundreds to keep an international professional circuit going. For the also-rans at the qualifying rounds of tournaments like this week's US Open, a life of endless sport and travel is far from glamorous. But the obscurity and the drudgery are relieved by the occasional joy of doing something to an almost unimaginably high standard

When Michael T Joyce of Los Angeles serves, when he tosses the ball and his face rises to track it, it looks as though he is smiling. But he is not smiling. His face's circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the ball at the top of the toss's rise. He wants to be able to hit emphatically down on the ball, to generate enough pace to avoid an ambitious return from his opponent. Right now, it is 1pm and I am watching him on the Stadium Court of the Stade Jarry tennis complex in Montreal. It is the first qualifying round for the Canadian Open, one of the major stops on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) hard-court circuit, which starts right after Wimbledon and climaxes at the US Open in New York (where this year's championships begin tomorrow). The tossed ball rises and seems for a second to hang, waiting, co-operating, as balls always seem to do for great players. The opponent, a Canadian college star named Dan Brakus, is a very good tennis player. Michael Joyce, on the other hand, is a world-class tennis player. In 1991, he was the top-ranked junior in the United States and a finalist at Junior Wimbledon. On this day, in July 1995, he is in his fourth year on the ATP Tour, and is ranked the 79th-best tennis player on planet Earth.

A tacit rhetorical assumption here is that you have probably never heard of Michael Joyce of Brentwood, LA. Nor of Tommy Ho of Florida. Nor of Vince Spadea nor Jonathan Stark nor Robbie Weiss nor Steve Bryan - all American men in their 20s, all ranked in the world's top 100 at one time in 1995. Nor of Jeff Tarango, 68th in the world, unless you remember his unfortunate breakdown in full public view during last year's Wimbledon. You are invited to imagine what it would be like to be among the 100 best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it's hard.

Stade Jarry's main Stadium Court can hold slightly more than 10,000 souls. Right now, for Michael Joyce's qualifying match, there are 93 people in the crowd, 91 of whom appear to be friends and relatives of Dan Brakus. Michael Joyce doesn't seem to notice whether there is a crowd or not. He has a way of staring intently at the air in front of his face between points. During points, he looks only at the ball. The acoustics in the near-empty stadium are amazing - you can hear every breath, every sneaker squeak, the authoritative ping of the ball against very tight strings.

Although there are very few paying customers here today, there are close to 100 world-class players: big spidery French guys with gelled hair, American kids with peeling noses and Pac-10 sweat clothes, lugubrious Germans, bored-looking Italians. There are blank-eyed Swedes and pockmarked Colombians and cyberpunkish Brits. Malevolent Slavs with scary haircuts. Mexican players who spend their spare time playing two-on-two soccer in the gravel outside the players' tent. With few exceptions, all the players have similar builds - big muscular legs, shallow chests, skinny necks, and one normal-size arm and one monstrously huge and hypertrophic arm. Many of these players in the qualifying rounds, or "qualies", have girlfriends in tow, sloppily beautiful European girls with sandals and patched jeans and leather backpacks, girlfriends who set up cloth lawn chairs and sun themselves next to their players' practice courts.

The players themselves tend to congregate in the complex's lobby, where the drawsheet for the qualifying tournament is pinned up on a cork bulletin board. They stand around in the air-conditioning in wet hair and sandals waiting for results of matches to go up on the board and for their own next match to be posted. Some of them listen to headphones; none seem to read. They all have the unhappy and self-enclosed look of people who spend huge amounts of time on planes and in hotel lobbies, waiting around - the look of people who must create an envelope of privacy around themselves with just their expressions. A lot of the players are extremely young - new guys trying to break into the tour - or conspicuously older - ie, over 30 with tans that look permanent and faces lined from years in the trenches of tennis's minor leagues.

The realities of the men's professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the big-event finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin. The action in Montreal began two days before the official start- date of the Canadian Open, one of the ATP's "Super 9" tournaments, when these players gathered for the qualies. This is essentially a competition to determine who will occupy the seven slots in the tournament's main draw designated for "qualifiers", those not automatically eligible to enter based on their ATP computer ranking.

Michael Joyce's career is now on a cusp: he still has to qualify for some tournaments, but more and more often he gets straight into the main draw. The move from qualifier to main-draw player is a huge boost, both financially and psychically, but it is still a couple of plateaux away from true fame and fortune. (In Montreal, a first-round loser in the main event will earn $5,400, a second-round loser $10,300. In the qualies it is $560 for losing the second round and $0.00 for losing in the first - and there is very little chance of sponsorship at this level.) The main draw's 64 or 128 players are still mostly the supporting cast for the stars we see in televised finals. But they are also the pool from which superstars are drawn. Even McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi had to play qualies at the start of their careers, and Sampras spent a couple of years losing in the early rounds of main draws before he suddenly erupted in the early Nineties and started beating everybody.

Still, even most main-draw players are obscure and unknown. An example is Jakob Hlasek, a Czech who is working out with Marc Rosset on one of the practice courts the morning I arrive at Stade Jarry. I notice them and go over to watch only because Hlasek and Rosset are so beautiful to see - at this point, I have no idea who they are. They are practising ground strokes down the line - Rosset's forehand and Hlasek's backhand - each ball plumb-line straight and within centimetres of the corner, the players moving with the compact nonchalance I have since come to recognise in pros when they are working out: the suggestion is of a very powerful engine in low gear. Jakob Hlasek is 6ft 2in and built like a half-back, his blond hair in a short square Eastern European cut, with icy eyes and cheekbones out to here. He looks like either a Nazi male model or a lifeguard. His backhand is a one-hander, rather like Ivan Lendl's, and watching him practise it is like watching a great artist casually sketch something. I keep having to remember to blink. There are a million little ways you can tell that somebody's a great player: details in his posture, in the way he bounces the ball with his racket head to pick it up, in the way he twirls the racket casually while waiting for the ball. Hlasek wears a plain grey T-shirt and very white shoes. It is mid-morning and already at least 90 degrees, and he isn't sweating.

Hlasek turned pro in 1983, six years later had one year in the top 10, and for the past few years has been ranked in the 60s and 70s, getting straight into the main draw of all the tournaments and usually losing in the first couple of rounds. Watching him practise is probably the first time it really strikes me how good these professionals are, because even just messing around, Hlasek is the most impressive tennis player I have ever seen. Last year, he made $300,000 on the tour (that's just prize money, not counting exhibitions and endorsement contracts), his career winnings are over $4 million, and it turns out his home base was for a time Monte Carlo, where lots of European players with tax issues end up living. Yet by the distorted standards of TV's obsession with Grand Slam finals and the world's top five, Hlasek is merely an also-ran. I would be surprised if anybody reading this has ever heard of Jakob Hlasek.

Michael Joyce, 22, is listed in the ATP Tour Player Guide as 5ft 11in and 165lb. On the Stadium Court, he looks compact and stocky. He is fair- skinned and has reddish hair and the patchy goatee of somebody who isn't quite old enough yet to grow real facial hair. When he plays in the heat, he wears a hat. He wears Fila clothes and uses Yonex rackets and is paid to do so. His face is childishly full, and though it isn't freckled, it somehow looks as though it ought to be. Joyce's fair skin doesn't tan or even burn, though he does get red in the face when he plays, from effort. His on-court expression communicates the sense that his attentions have become very narrow and focused and intense - it is the same pleasantly grim expression you see on, say, a working surgeon - or a jeweller. Out there on the Stadium Court, in contrast to his Canadian opponent, who has the varnished good looks and Pepsodent smile of the stereotypical tennis player, Joyce looks terribly human. He sweats through his shirt, gets flushed, whoops for breath after a long point.

It is 1.30pm. Joyce has broken Brakus's serve once, is 3-1 up in the first set and is receiving. Brakus is in the multibrand clothes of somebody without an endorsement contract. He's well over 6ft tall, and, as with many large male college stars, his game is built around his serve. With the score at 0-15, his first serve is flat and 118mph and way out to Joyce's backhand, which is a two-hander and hard to lunge effectively with, but Joyce lunges as effectively as he needs to and sends the ball back down the line to the Canadian's forehand, deep in the court and with such flat pace that Brakus has to stutter-step a little, and backpedal to get set up - clearly, he is used to playing guys for whom 118mph out wide would be an outright ace or at least produce such a weak return that he could move up easily and put the ball away. Brakus now sends the ball back up the line, high over the net, loopy with top-spin. It is not all that bad a shot, considering the fierceness of the return, and one with enough top-spin to put most tennis players on the defensive. But Michael Joyce moves in and takes the ball on the rise and hits a backhand cross so tightly angled that nobody alive could get to it. This is a typical Joyce-Brakus point. The match is carnage of a particularly high-level sort: it is like watching an extremely large and powerful predator get torn to pieces by an even larger and more powerful predator. Brakus looks annoyed and berates himself, but he couldn't have played much better, not given what he and the 79th-best player in the world have in their respective arsenals.

Michael Joyce will later say that Brakus "had a big serve, but the guy didn't belong on a pro court." Joyce didn't mean this in an unkind way. It turns out that what Michael Joyce says rarely has any kind of spin or slant on it; he mostly just reports what he sees, rather like a camera. You couldn't even call him sincere, because it is as if it would never occur to him to try to be sincere or otherwise. For a while, I thought his rather bland candour was due to his not being very bright. This judgement was partly informed by the fact that Joyce didn't go to college and was only marginally involved in his academic studies at high school (something I know because he told me right away). What I discovered as the tournament wore on was that Michael Joyce's openness and lack of affectation are not a sign of stupidity but of something else.

Joyce could have gone to college, but if he had, it would have been primarily to play tennis. Coaches at major universities apparently offered inducements to come and play for them so outrageous and incredible that I wouldn't repeat them here even if Joyce hadn't asked me not to. In fact, if he had chosen to go it would have been almost exclusively to play tennis; the academic and social aspects of collegiate life interest him about as much as hitting 25,000 crosscourt forehands while a coach yells at you in foreign languages would interest you. But he didn't.

Tennis is what Michael Joyce loves and lives for and is. He sees little point in telling anybody anything different. It is the only thing he is devoted to, he has devoted massive amounts of himself to it, it is all he wants to do or be involved in. Because he started playing at the age of two and playing competitively at seven and had the first half-dozen years of his career directed rather, shall we say, forcefully and enthusiastically by his father (who Joyce estimates spent around $250,000 on lessons, court time, equipment and travel during Michael's junior career), it is perhaps reasonable to ask Joyce to what extent he chose to devote himself to tennis. Can you choose something when you are forcefully and enthusiastically immersed in it at an age when the resources and information necessary for choosing are not yet yours?

Joyce's answer is that it doesn't really matter much to him whether he originally "chose" serious tennis or not: all he knows is that he loves it. He tries to explain the US Juniors, which he won in 1991: "You get there and look at the draw; it is a 128 draw - there are so many guys you have to beat. And then it is all over and you've won, you're the national champion - there's nothing like it. I get chills even talking about it." Or just the previous week in Washington: "I'm playing Agassi, and it's great tennis, and there's like thousands of fans going nuts. I can't describe the feeling. Where else could I get that?" What he says is understandable, but it doesn't really explain the life he has chosen. The way Joyce's face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him does. When he speaks of tennis and his career, his eyes open wide, the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover. It is the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who have been married for a long time or in religious people who have devoted their lives to their beliefs. It is the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one has give up for it. Whether there is "choice" involved is, at a certain point, of no interest ... since it is the surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.

Advances in racket technology and conditioning methods over the past decade have dramatically altered men's professional tennis. For much of the 20th century, there were two basic styles of top-level tennis. There was the offensive style, which is based on the serve and the net game and is ideally suited to "fast" surfaces like grass and cement. And there was the defensive, or baseline, style, built around foot speed, consistency and ground strokes accurate enough to hit effective passing shots against a serve-and-volleyer. This style is most effective on "slow" surfaces like clay and Har-Tru composite. John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg are probably the modern era's greatest exponents of the offensive and defensive styles, respectively.

There is now a third way to play, and it tends to be called the "power baseline" style. As far as I can determine, Jimmy Connors more or less invented it back in the Seventies, and in the Eighties Ivan Lendl raised it to a brutal art. In the Nineties, the majority of young players on the ATP Tour have a power-baseline game. Its cornerstone is ground strokes hit with incredible pace, such that winners from the baseline are not unusual. His serve is usually competent and reasonably forceful, but the really inspired part of a PBer's game is usually his return of serve. He often has incredible reflexes and can hit winners right off the return. This game requires both the power and aggression of an offensive style and the speed and calculated patience of a defensive style. It is adjustable both to fast grass and to slow clay, but its most congenial surface is DecoTurf II, the type of abrasive hard-court surface now used at the US Open and at all the North American tune-ups for it, including the Canadian Open.

Michael Joyce's style is power baseline: his return of serve is the linchpin of his game. He takes the ball early, on the rise, so he always looks as if he is moving forward even though he rarely comes to the net. His serve is good enough: the first usually comes in around 95mph (compare Ivanisevic's at 136mph or Sampras's at 132mph or even this Bakus kid's at 118mph), his second is in the low 80s but with plenty of spin. As with Lendl and Agassi and Courier and many PBers, Joyce's strongest shot is his forehand, a weapon of near-Wagnerian aggression and power. It's sparer and more textbook than Lendl's whip-crack forehand or Borg's great swooping loop. By way of decoration, there's only a small loop of flourish on the backswing and, as Joyce makes contact with the ball, his left hand behind him opens up, as if he were releasing something, a gesture that has nothing to do with the mechanics of the stroke. He doesn't know that his left hand opens up at impact on forehands: it is unconscious, some tic that started when he was a child which is now inextricably hardwired into a stroke that is itself, now, unconscious for Joyce, after years of his hitting more forehands over and over and over than anyone could ever count.

Joyce's coach is Sam Aparicio, a protege of Pancho Gonzalez's. Aparicio looks a bit like a Hispanic Dustin Hoffman and is an almost unbelievably nice guy, with the sort of Zen-like blend of focus and calm developed by people who have to spend enormous amounts of time sitting in one place watching closely while somebody else does something. Sam gets 10 per cent of Joyce's gross revenues and in return travels with Joyce, rooms with him, coaches him, supervises his training, analyses matches with him and attends him in practice, even picking up errant balls so that Joyce doesn't have to waste any of his tightly organised practice time. The stress and weird loneliness of pro tennis - where everybody's in the same community and sees one another every week but is constantly on the move and in competition with each other, where enormous amounts of money are at stake and life is essentially a montage of airports and bland hotels and non-home-cooked food and courtesy cars and nagging injuries and staggering long-distance phone bills, and with people's families back home tending to be wackos, since only wackos would make the financial and temporal sacrifices necessary to let their offspring become good enough at something to turn pro at it - all this means that most players lean heavily on their coaches for emotional support and friendship as well as technical counsel. Sam's role with Joyce looks to me to approximate to that of the "companions" of the last century, those older ladies who chaperoned nubile women abroad.

Aparicio is based in Las Vegas, Andre Agassi's home town. Agassi, who is 25, is Michael Joyce's hero. Just the week before Montreal, at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, in heat that had players vomiting on court and defaulting all over the place, Agassi beat Joyce in the third round of the main draw, 6-2, 6-2. They have played each other before: Joyce has flown several times to Las Vegas at Agassi's request to practise with him and is apparently regarded by Agassi as a friend and peer - these are facts Michael Joyce mentions with as much pride as he evinces in speaking of victories and world ranking.

The idea that there can be wholly distinct levels of competitive tennis - so distinct that what's being played is in essence a different game - may seem hyperbolic. Television doesn't really allow you to appreciate what real top-level players can do - how hard they're actually hitting the ball and with what control and tactical artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practise several times right up close, 6ft and a chain-link fence away. This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a 1ft sq area 78ft away over a net, hard. He can do this more than 90 per cent of the time. And this is the world's 79th-best player, one who has to play the Montreal qualies. On the way here I had entertained the fantasy of playing Joyce - or even knocking up with him. The idea is now revealed to me to be in a certain way obscene, and I resolve not even to let Joyce know that I used to play competitive tennis, and (I had presumed) rather well. This makes me sad.

As a young person, I played competitive junior tennis, travelling to tournaments all over the Midwest. Most of my best friends were also tennis players, and on a regional level we were successful. Tennis and our proficiency at it were tremendously important to us, tying up our identities and a big part of our self-worth. One reason is that a serious junior gives up a lot of his time and freedom to develop his game, although once I heard about Michael Joyce's childhood routine I saw that we were comparative dilettantes. The other 14-year-old Midwest hotshots and I knew that our fishpond was limited, but levels and plateaux beyond our own seemed abstract, somehow unreal - those of us who were the best in our region could not imagine players our own age who were substantially better than us.

I still play - not competitively, but seriously - and deep down inside, I still consider myself an extremely good tennis player, very hard to beat. I confess that I arrived in Montreal with some dim unconscious expectation that these professionals - at least the obscure ones, the non-stars - wouldn't be all that much better than me. I don't mean to imply that I'm insane: I was ready to concede that age, a nasty ankle injury in 1988, and a penchant for nicotine (and worse) meant that I wouldn't be able to compete physically with a young unhurt professional, but on TV (while eating junk and smoking), I'd seen pros whacking balls at each other that didn't look to be moving substantially faster than the balls I'd hit. In other words, I arrived at my first professional tournament with the pathetic deluded pride that attends ignorance. And I have been brought up sharply. I do not play and never have played even the same game as these qualifiers.

The game I had spent so much of my youth perfecting would not work against these guys. Mine was a defensive game, a strategy Martin Amis once described as "craven retrieval", with enough skill to keep hitting the ball until the other guy made a mistake. But for one thing, pros simply do not make unforced errors - or, at any rate, they make them so rarely that there's no way they are going to make the four unforced errors in seven points necessary for me to win a game. For another thing, they will take any ball that doesn't have ferocious depth and pace on it and - given even a fractional moment to line up a shot - hit a winner off it. For yet another thing, their own shots have such ferocious depth and pace that there is no way I would be able to hit more than a couple of them back at any one time. I could not meaningfully exist on the same court as these obscure, hungry players. Nor could you. And it is not just a matter of talent or practice.

Television also tends to level everybody out and make everyone seem blandly good-looking, but at Montreal it turns out that a lot of the pros and stars are interesting - or even downright funny-looking. Michael Chang, 23 and number five in the world, looks like two different people stitched crudely together: a normal upper body perched atop hugely muscular and totally hairless legs. He has a mushroom-shaped head, inky-black hair, and an expression of deep and intractable unhappiness, as unhappy a face as I have seen outside a graduate creative-writing programme. Chang's mother is here - one of the most infamous of the dreaded tennis parents, a woman who is rumoured to have reached down her child's shorts in public to check his underwear - and her attendance may have something to do with the staggering woe of Chang's mien and play. Thomas Enqvist ends up beating him badly in the quarter-final on Friday.

Michael Joyce in close-up, viewed eating supper or riding in a courtesy car, looks slighter and younger than he does on court. His interests outside tennis consist mostly of big-budget movies and genre novels of the airport- paperback sort. He has a tight group of friends of long-standing back home in LA, but one senses that most of his personal connections have been made via tennis. He has dated some girls but it is impossible to tell whether he is a virgin. It seems staggering and impossible, but my sense is that he might be. His most revealing sexual comment was made in the context of explaining the odd type of confidence that keeps him from freezing up in a match in front of large crowds or choking on a point when there is lots of money at stake. Joyce, who usually needs to pause about five beats to think before he answers a question, thinks the confidence is partly a matter of temperament and partly a function of hard work and practice.

"If I'm in like a bar, and there's a really good-looking girl, I might be kind of nervous. But if there's like a thousand gorgeous girls in the stands when I'm playing, it's a different story. I'm not nervous then, when I play, because I know what I'm doing. I know what to do out there." Maybe it's good to let these be his last quoted words.

Whether or not he ends up in the top 10 and a name people know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art - something few of us get to be. He has visited and tested parts of his psychic reserves most of us do not even know for sure we have (courage, playing with violent nausea, not choking, etc). Joyce is, in other words, a complete man, though in a grotesquely limited way. But he wants more. He wants to be the best, to have his name known, to hold professional trophies over his head as he patiently turns in all four directions for the crowd. He wants this and will pay to have it - to pursue it, let it define him - and will pay up with the regretless cheer of a man for whom issues of choice became irrelevant a long time ago. Already for Joyce, at 22, it is too late for anything else; he has invested too much, is in too deep. I think he is both lucky and unlucky. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.

A longer version of this essay will be included in David Foster Wallace's collection, 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again', to be published by Little, Brown in February 1997. His novel, 'Infinite Jest', was published by Little, Brown last month at pounds 17.99.

Michael Joyce started playing at two and competing at seven. To what extent did he choose this gruelling life?