In 1994, David Foster Wallace published an essay about the difficult-to-pin-down pleasure of watching great athletes during their most intense moments of competition. The essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” looks simple on the surface: it is “unaccompanied,” by which I mean there are no numbered footnotes, no preambles, no subtitles and no flow charts framing or attached to the text. There are two asterisks, and both asterisks lead to brief matter at the bottom of their respective pages, but these tiny notes barely resemble the spiraling small-print digressions so prevalent in Wallace’s later essays. *
Essentially, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is just a book review, in which Wallace advises readers not to buy (or come anywhere near) Tracy Austin’s tennis memoir Beyond Center Court: My Story. But before it’s over, the review becomes a disquisition on the sports memoir as a genre and a meditation on the spirituality of spectator attention. Wallace explains such devotion in the following terms: “To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.” In short, great athletes demonstrate the human body’s semi-divine possibilities, sending us a message from beyond about the gifts we do and do not have within us. They create beauty. According to Wallace, that’s why we can’t tear our eyes away from “Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride.”
I thought of Wallace’s essay last weekend when Diego Milito, a vaguely Pee Wee Herman-ish Argentinean soccer player, scored an incredible goal in the 2010 Champions League final [video below]. Milito, playing for the Italian club team Inter Milan, got the ball about 20 yards from the goal. He started dribbling in a straight line, and at first it seemed that his defender would easily contain him. But then Milito did something hard to describe—a very speedy feint which somehow left the defender about two feet out of place. In the next moment, Milito slid in front of the goal, struck the ball perfectly with his right foot, and scored. The net captured the ball’s energy and curled out like an ocean wave going backwards.
Diego Milito’s two-goal performance in the Champions League final was a sweet precursor to the upcoming 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where all manner of angelic animals will be displaying football artistry starting on June 11. No doubt soccer fans will be treated to memorable, even jaw-dropping goals throughout the tournament. Every World Cup produces its share of those semi-divine, Jordan-esque moments that Wallace calls to our attention in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” But there are other aspects of the beautiful game that make the World Cup a great pleasure to watch, aspects that are far from divine or even semi-divine: the crunch of a hard tackle, the calm control of a well-organized back line, the human comedy of an inspired dive, the many moments of pleading between players and referees who clearly do not speak the same language. There’s the homely but effective pass that leads to the well-timed assist that leads to the visionary goal. The way play builds between teammates is part of the game’s suspense; spectacular goals are climaxes, but they wouldn’t mean as much if they were always only individual efforts. Not everyone can be Diego Milito (not even Diego Milito can always be Diego Milito—this summer Milito will most likely be playing a supporting role in the World Cup while his Argentine countryman Lionel Messi takes center stage). And all this reminds me of something Derek Jeter said in a recent Times piece about why the Yankees have been a successful franchise for so long: “Every level in the minor leagues, we were taught that the team came first.”
In some ways Jeter’s words come close to a vapid sports cliché, but I think the longtime Yankees shortstop (who is quoted more at length in the Times article) is actually getting at something David Foster Wallace missed, or maybe wasn’t interested in. Wallace, who was an accomplished youth tennis player and whose sports writing tends to be about tennis, doesn’t seem all that interested in team sports, or in the team ethos that some sports require. Derek Jeter has made, on his own, all kinds of remarkable defensive plays over the course of his career, and he’s a great clutch hitter, in possession of what Wallace calls by the Greek term techne, an almost godly mastery of craft. ** But Jeter, for all his solo gifts and accomplishments, also sees his team’s success as more important than his own art. The winning World Cup team will surely be graced by brilliant individual performers, but will have masterful role players as well.
*(And when I say “small-print” I’m not kidding; reading my paperback edition of Consider the Lobster nearly blinded me, but of course I couldn’t resist the microscopic footnotes because I wanted to know what Wallace was thinking.)
**(Except Wallace adds the correct diacritical mark ( ¯ ) over the second e when he uses this Greek word, and I haven’t yet figured out how to do that on my laptop.)