Sam Riches | Longreads and Racquet | January 2017 | 19 minutes (4,882 words)
Michael Joyce climbs into his father’s station wagon on a Sunday afternoon, the light of southern California glowing soft and gold. Joyce is tiny and cherubic, his face freckled and full, his hair a shock of strawberry blonde. He is 12 years old and has already spent six of those years playing competitive tennis, and he’s become very good at it.
In another six years, Joyce will become the junior national champion. After that victory, he will hoist a heavy trophy overhead and cameras will pop and flash and reporters will shout questions in his direction, and his ascension, as a professional tennis player, will begin. In an especially vibrant era for American tennis, Joyce’s cohort will include Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier. He will play each of them, with varying levels of success, and at his peak he will be ranked as the 64th best male singles player in the world.
During his playing days, David Foster Wallace will write about him in his seminal tennis essay, “The String Theory,” later republished in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, and through that work, Joyce’s career will persist, a blip of his existence anthologized in pop culture. In the years that follow, at every tournament Joyce attends, someone will ask him about that story, about Wallace, and about that period in his life.
A wrist injury will end his career early but not his successes. He will coach Maria Sharapova for six years and two Grand Slam titles and become a known commodity as a coach and mostly forgotten as a player, a fact that will annoy him greatly, but also be inarguable.
On this day, though, none of that yet matters. Defeat had been meted out by another prodigious talent, another boy born with a natural inclination towards the sport. Joyce, at 12 years old, was not yet thinking about his professional future, he was not yet aware that his youth and working adulthood would blend together without interruption; he just knew that when he won, everyone around him seemed happier and he liked that. He liked the way his view of the world, from the back seat of the station wagon, seemed to grow larger and brighter on those days, the family joyful and contented, his father sometimes pulling off the road for a post-match ice cream.
This would not be one of those days, though. Joyce had lost. His opponent, a lefty, put heavy topspin on the ball. It was a style that Joyce had yet to encounter, and when his opponent walloped it back, deep into the corners, a distance, both literal and metaphoric, grew between the boys.
The resulting defeat was felt so strongly and shared between Joyce and his father, also named Michael, that they diverted from their regular route home, drove out to the edge of town, and pulled to a stop at a factory that manufactured ball machines. Joyce didn’t know this factory existed, he didn’t know how his father knew it existed, but soon enough a new ball machine was rattling in the trunk, and they were on their way home.
Years earlier, in the family backyard, Joyce’s father had torn down the tree house, filled in the swimming pool, and put up a tennis court. Joyce received instruction from famed tennis technician and legendary hard ass Robert Lansdorp and his father, who taught tennis in the army, would replicate the lessons at home.
Now, in the backyard, the machine stood in his father’s place, rapid firing balls that sliced and hooked and spun through the air, mirroring the shots that Joyce had missed earlier in the day. Joyce’s task was to remain there, outside, until he understood how to play every shot. For three hours, Joyce batted at the air, fought through fatigue, and ignored his body that was wilting with exhaustion.
Later, when his mother and sister returned home from a day of running errands, his mother stormed into the backyard. “What are you doing?” she shouted at his father. “The poor kid is exhausted.” It was then that Joyce took his first break, his hands now raw and red and blistered over, his frustration giving way to tears.
This is an unseemly side of athletics: the labor that is overlooked in the delirium of mass mediation, the absurdity that we ignore because it is ugly and alarming and unhealthy, but also necessary. It is very hard to go pro in any sport, and few sports are as isolating as tennis. On the court, there is nowhere to hide, no teammates to mask individual deficiencies. As a result, the life of an athlete, even a young one, has to be dwindled down to a singular focus, and then refined over and over again. Joyce did not yet fully understand why this level of sacrifice was required—but it wouldn’t be much longer until he did.
“When I was younger I almost felt like the happiness in the family depended on how I was doing in tennis and it probably did a little bit and that was the sad reality of it,” Joyce says. “If I won we went out for lunch and everyone’s happy. If I lose, my dad’s kinda pissed and my mom’s pissed at my dad. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid. It’s not a normal childhood.”
That day, in the backyard, with his mother’s help, Joyce learned that he had to stand up for himself. He had to be able to say no, his mother told him. He couldn’t please everyone, not all the time, and his self-worth couldn’t be dictated by wins and losses. This was a hard lesson to learn, of course, and Joyce describes that day, and his father’s course of action, as “a bit nutty,” but it worked. A few months later, Joyce played that same boy and won in straight sets.
Through the cursory nature of their careers, athletes learn of life’s brevity earlier than most and at another angle and a different depth. Joyce is now a father and husband, and the things that used to matter to him, matter less now. The priorities of his life have shifted, but tennis remains near the top and so does what he loves most about the sport: the game’s simple binaries, that there is one winner and one loser. On a tennis court, you are exposed and vulnerable, and you have to face whatever comes your way and face it alone. Joyce has come to enjoy that. He has viewed his life through the lens of tennis, his ambitions and desires distilled through its filter. His experiences have shaped who he is, sometimes in small, indiscernible ways, and other times in larger, sweeping turns. He grew up in the sport, and in public, and now, at 43 years old, Michael Joyce begins his second act.
* * *
I meet Joyce on a Friday night in a hotel lobby in Québec City. He is dressed in blue jeans and a green Triumph motorcycle T-shirt. A toothpick dangles from the corner of his mouth. His shoes are black runners accented with bright pink soles and a neon green swoosh, they are futuristic and ornate and more than a little bit garish. I point this out not because I’m an asshole, but because their high-profile nature is in direct contrast to the man wearing them. While many of Joyce’s peers can be heard swishing through the lobby in serious looking athletic tracksuits, Joyce is more likely to be found in Johnny Cash T-shirts and basketball shorts and later tells me that he thinks he would be just as happy in Montana, coaching kids, as he is when he’s at the U.S. Open, coaching in front of the world.
Joyce has arrived in Québec with Jessie Pegula, who he has been coaching for five years. They are here to compete in the WTA National Bank Cup, or, locally, la Coupe Banque Nationale. Coaches and tennis players with families in tow stream through the lobby with large tennis bags slung over their shoulders. Nearly everyone is extremely fit and in very tight clothing and appear to have spent great amounts of time in the sun. Joyce and Pegula have arrived here from Florida and at the conclusion of this tournament, they will head south once again to tournaments in Albuquerque and Vegas, before flying to Asia for a string of tournaments there.
Here, in Québec City, Pegula will open with a singles match against Montreal’s Aleksandra Wozniak, and will also be playing doubles with the number one seed Eugenie Bouchard, whose face is plastered across town on billboards and posters promoting the tournament. Bouchard and Pegula are both 22 years old and have known each other for several years. A few weeks before the tournament began, Pegula called her up, which seems like an incredibly frightening thing to do, given her stature as both a professional athlete and Known Gorgeous Person, and asked if she wanted to play doubles. Bouchard readily agreed to it. “Genie gets a bad rap, but she’s always been very nice to us and very professional,” Joyce says, as we grab a table in the corner of the lobby.
One of Joyce’s most memorable matches was played in Québec, against Greg Rusedski at the 1995 Canadian Open. It was the same year that Rusedski, who was born and raised in Montreal, left Canada and adopted British citizenship. It was Rusedski’s first match back on Canadian soil and the crowd, some 12,000 strong, were relentless and unforgiving. “People were going nuts,” Joyce says. “Booing and throwing shit. It was crazy.” When Joyce won, the stadium erupted and his feet didn’t touch ground for a week. On the local streets, he was ushered into bars and restaurants, his bills covered, his back slapped and hand shook. “For a week,” Joyce says, “I was the king of Montreal.”
Somewhere, watching in the stands that day, on assignment with Details magazine, was David Foster Wallace. As Joyce understands it, Wallace was looking for a rising player to profile and the decision was between himself, Vince Spadea, Tommy Ho, and Chris Woodruff—good players all, but all still trying to find their way. What nudged Wallace towards Joyce, he believes, at least in part, was his coach, Sam Aparicio.
“Sam was like family, and Dave really liked him,” Joyce says. “Sam was a deep guy. I used to be more high-strung, especially as a player, and it was good for me in a way. I could look over during a match and Sam would almost be asleep. I was more fiery and excited and everyone was mellow with him, and I think that’s partly why they got along. He spent a lot of time with Sam and those few days in the qualifiers, he decided I was the guy to do it.”
In an accompanying footnote to his piece, Wallace writes of Sam:
“(He) spends his time in airports reading gigantic tomes on Mayan architecture and is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met either inside the tennis world or outside it (so cool I’m kind of scared of him and haven’t once called him since the assignment ended, if that makes sense).”
Over the course of a few months, Wallace attended at least three tournaments, and spent great amounts of time with Joyce and Aparicio at fine restaurants at Wallace’s urging. “He always wanted to eat at the best places,” Joyce says. “We’d go to some really nice steakhouse, and I’d be dressed kinda nice and he’d be wearing a bandana, and I thought they were leg warmers, but they were these big, thick socks, and he’d get the biggest steak on the menu and say ‘get what you want, it’s on the magazine, it’s on the magazine.’”
It would be more than a year before the piece was published, and Joyce remembers a distraught Wallace calling him up a few months after the reporting was finished. “He said ‘I wrote this unbelievable piece, but it’s 50 pages and Details won’t run it. Do you mind if I shop it around?’ and I said sure. He was really bummed. I had no idea, no idea in a million years, that it would become as big as it did.”
It was about 10 months later that Joyce got another call. He was playing in a tournament in Bermuda at the time, and Esquire was on the other end of the line. “They said they wanted to come out to Bermuda to take photos of me for the David Foster Wallace piece, ‘The String Theory,’ and I’d kinda forgotten about it at this point, but the next day a photographer showed up.” When the piece was finally published, Joyce was competing in London and his mother, Jane, read it to him over the phone from California. “We didn’t have cellphones or computers then and I’m like ‘Is it cool? How are the pictures?’” It would be another week until Joyce got his hands on a hard copy and then a few more years until he came to appreciate it.
Wallace was hard on him, harder than he had anticipated, and Joyce describes himself “as a different kinda guy.” What he means by this is that he appears to have an eidetic memory, for names, tournaments, events, and personal slights. He tells me that when he was in his mid-twenties an article came out that talked about how his hair was thinning and the author compared him to Agassi, apparently trying to draw some sort of point about there being two bald guys on the tour. It affected Joyce enough that he began shaving his head. There was the movie director at the party in L.A., when Joyce was at the peak of his career, who dismissed his world singles ranking with a curt “keep trying.” There was the time Agassi flew him to Vegas, put him up for a couple nights in a hotel, gave him some spending money, but only hit with him for a few hours, late at night, and Joyce, then 18, would return to his hotel alone and wait by the phone for the next call to go hit again. Those moments hurt, and Joyce hurt again, reading the story.
“I remember thinking to myself why did he say I was a virgin? Or why would he think that? He wrote something about my life being grotesque, I was like, ‘why would he say that?’ I could tell he liked me, but I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad.” Over time, Joyce came to see that the passages that seemed negative, upon first blush, were not personal attacks but an acknowledgement of the necessary sacrifices required to be among the hundred best in the world at something. “He was right,” Joyce says now. “This life is a tough life. Everybody sees all the great players, the money, and this and that, but it’s a very tough life. I don’t know if I’d want my daughter to do it. If she loves tennis and wants me to help her I would do it, but I’m not going to encourage it. It’s tough. It’s not normal.”
Joyce and Wallace didn’t stay in touch, a fact that seems to bother him, at least a little bit. “I know he loved tennis and he actually lived in L.A. and he was teaching in L.A., but I didn’t talk to him for years after. He kinda stayed to himself. I heard one year he was at Wimbledon interviewing Roger or something, and I didn’t even know he was there or anything.” Wallace did, eventually, get over his fear of contacting Aparicio though, Joyce’s coach, and they even hit together a few times. “He wouldn’t hit with me, but he hit with Sam,” Joyce says.
Joyce has accumulated a few extra pounds on his frame since his playing days, his body no longer pushed to the metabolic extremes it once was, but the residual muscle, built up after decades of hitting innumerable shots, remains packed onto his shoulders and back and arms. He is sturdy, visibly strong, but he feels less so in this moment. He hunches forward and for a moment he appears smaller than he is. The subject shifts to tomorrow, and the rest of the week, the tournament at hand. We make plans to meet again in the lobby the next morning.
“You can ride over with us,” he says, coming to life again. “That’s what Dave did.”
* * *
Joyce’s career ended in 2001 in the second set of a match against Michael Chang. He hit a backhand and then lost the feeling in his left hand. He had been playing with tendonitis in his wrist for a few years and managed it with a cortisone shot every six months or so, but over time the tendon weakened and that day, against Chang, when he hit his backhand, usually a lethal shot for Joyce, the tendon ruptured. Surgery followed as did a year and a half of rehabilitation but he never fully regained what he lost and his ranking fell and remained around 130th in the world. Then things took another turn.
While working his way back into shape, Joyce’s mother, Jane, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was 49 years old and the prognosis was grim. “They really didn’t give her too much hope, so I spent a lot of time at home,” he says.
One thing you need to know about Michael Joyce is that he loves his family with the type of religious devotion that is developed after decades of attentiveness and assurance and affection. Jane survived for five years, which, Joyce says, was pretty amazing considering the original outlook, but it also affected him greatly to be away from her, even for short stretches, so mostly he stayed home and forgot about touring. This was not a difficult decision, he says. “My dad was one my biggest supporters and I was extremely close to my mom. My mom was one of the best ladies I ever knew. She was my best friend.”
The combination of his mom’s cancer and his stagnating comeback caused a shift in his perspective and tennis suddenly seemed less important, but he also needed an income so he started teaching lessons. He began working with two players who were already pretty good: Robert Yim and Kevin Kim. Joyce had played Yim earlier, when Yim was only 17, and while he was a good player, and Joyce liked him, he also, Joyce says, “played like an idiot.” It was a similar situation for Kim, according to Joyce. “I had played him a bunch of times before and he was really talented, but he played so dumb.”
Tennis is a physical game, of course, but also highly strategic. Every shot is accompanied by a seemingly endless list of variables: positioning, speed, angle, and spin, are just some of the necessary calculations one is required to make in a fraction of a second. Joyce’s strength, as a player and a coach, has always been seeing the strategy of the game. “I was good at maximizing what I had,” he says. “For me to help someone, most of how I help them is through shot selection, playing big points a certain way, strategy, patterns. Little things like that. But to get that across to somebody it takes time.” These geometrical considerations are unexciting, but they are also capable of shifting a set, a match, a tournament, a career. These factors, when applied consistently and obsessively, can build the type of momentum needed to break through to the next level.
After working with Joyce, Yim won the Boys’ 18s Super National Hard Court Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan and received a main draw wildcard into the U.S. Open. After that win, Joyce says Yim’s father called him, crying and thanking him for what he had done for his son. Joyce realized he might be onto something.
“It seemed like everybody I was helping started to do better. Most of the players were already pretty good, I could just get them to another level. It made me feel good to see them do well and see them happy.”
Joyce’s eye for strategy is due largely to his father’s habits. Michael senior worked in film and television as a director of photography, and huge portions of his time were dedicated to preparation and location scouting and he took a similar methodical approach to Joyce’s tennis. Each match was followed by analysis, a discussion of what worked and what didn’t. They also frequently played chess, which Joyce credits for his early success. It allowed him to see the game in a different way, to think ahead of his opponents.
For a while, while his mother’s health was still manageable, and without the immediate pressure of competing and the newfound ability to make his own hours, Joyce was content. “For the first time,” he says, “I felt free to do what I wanted.”
It would be a brief burst of freedom. In 2004 Joyce began coaching Maria Sharapova and his life changed again. Joyce had hit with her in the past, and her father, Yuri, liked that Joyce challenged Maria, that he pushed her to be better, and two months after she won Wimbledon, they began working together full-time. “Right off the bat I helped her with strategy and that was my biggest impact with Maria,” Joyce says. “I was able to use her patterns and see how she could improve. She made me look good because she was capable of doing everything I wanted her to do. Plus I could still hit the ball really good—I could emulate anyone she was going to play.”
I see this firsthand on Saturday when I attend practice with Joyce and Pegula. The National Bank Cup is an indoor tournament, played atop carpet courts, and hosted at Laval University. It’s a small venue, and there are only two practice courts available, so on Saturday morning, when Joyce and Jessie arrive shortly after 10 a.m., there are already seven players hitting across two courts. Pegula joins two other girls, and they take turns hitting as Joyce paces the baseline.
This is the first time I’ve seen professional tennis live and I immediately notice the acoustics. I learn that the thwack of a well hit serve, when you’re standing mere feet from it, produces one of the most satisfying and aurally nourishing sounds in existence. I also learn that the practice court is a dangerous place to be. At one point, I look up from my notepad to see an errant ball hurtling in my direction, but Joyce intervenes. He reaches out and knocks the ball from the air at such an angle that it pops skyward and then falls softly into his other hand. He catches it without looking, like he knew the exact flight path the ball would take. It is one of the most impressive displays of hand-eye coordination I’ve ever witnessed, and it was totally blasé to Joyce and everyone else on the court.
But here’s the thing about seeing professional tennis players up close; they are insanely good, with superlative power, steady hands, and the type of endurance usually reserved for long distance runners or professional soccer players. Maybe as a result of this constant demand for high physical and mental functioning, they are also prone to bouts of public hysteria that make the majority seem, at least on the surface, a little unhinged.
Pegula, whose parents own both the Buffalo Sabres and the Buffalo Bills and have a net worth of more than four billion dollars, seems to have missed the bellicose tennis gene. She doesn’t swear or toss her racket or gesticulate wildly when things don’t break the way she wants, and there is no indication, at any point, that she comes from one of the most affluent families in America. In the coming days, while her family takes a private jet to the Bills season opener, she will be here, working and practicing and studying her opponents, and she will win two matches, earning a take-home check of $6,175.
Later that night, Joyce and Pegula return to Laval and head onto the main court. It’s after 9 p.m. now and the building has cleared out. The only sounds are the pong of the ball as Joyce and Pegula hit and the heavy hum of the overhead gymnasium fans. In a distant corner, a custodian rattles loose the remnants of a plastic garbage bin. Between serves, Joyce paces the baseline, he bounces on his toes and lowers into a squat and waits to hit his return, his body swaying rhythmically. It is easy, while watching Joyce do this, to recall his playing days.
There are familiar ritual procedures; the muscles of his face still strains with each serve, sweat still gathers at the tip of his nose, he still wallops the ball with the same stroke, heavy and hard and Herculean. Pegula is currently ranked 165th in the world, which means she still has to play qualifiers to get into most tournaments, is still on the outside looking in, but she has the benefits of youth and motivation and a coach who believes in her. In between returns, Joyce shouts motivation. “Good.” Thwack. “Much better.” Thwack. “Nice shot.” Thwack. Soon he has soaked through his Wakefield Castrol Motor Oil T-shirt and soon after that, he changes and sweats through another.
These late nights on the road, in foreign stadiums, are part of the process, and Joyce has learned to enjoy it. There is a mental resolve that tennis demands. You cannot be embittered by loss or contented by victory. “If you can’t handle losing there’s no way you’re ever going to be any good,” Joyce says. Joyce has learned this lesson in two forms, as a player and coach.
“Even when you win something big, like the U.S. Open or something, you go into a mini-depression, all of us, because you win the tournament and you’re ecstatic, it’s such a long haul and the tournament’s over and you’ve won,” he says. “You go out that night and celebrate and the next day you wake up and everyone feels great, but two days later it’s like, ‘okay, we’ve got to start all over again.’”
“What you realize,” he says, “is win or lose, it’s almost the same. It just keeps going.”
* * *
Joyce’s father died in 2013 at the age of 82, and shortly afterwards Joyce left Los Angeles and moved to Charleston, South Carolina. He no longer felt tethered to the city and he knew he needed to move on to move forward. “I thought if I’m going to get married, if I’m going to have a family, I need to make some changes. I thought the best thing I could do was try and go somewhere else.” Joyce didn’t last long in Charleston, less than a year, but it was enough to meet Jenna, his wife. They now live in Boca Raton, Florida.
The first time I spoke with Joyce he was calling from the U.S. Open, a tournament that is special to him because his mom was from New York. This year, he took Jenna and their newborn daughter, Maya. Their first day there, as a family, “was a proud and exciting day for me,” Joyce said over the phone. “It’s kinda surreal almost, to be taking my daughter to the U.S. Open. She’s got her little badge and everything. It’s a new chapter in my life.”
Joyce now has a replenished idea of permanence, a new reason to stay put. Our pasts are inevitable; they contain the imprints of others, of our experiences, of the lessons we’ve learned, but Joyce is different than he once was. The path he’s on now has lead him to what he’s most desired: a wife and a family and stability in a life of perpetual movement. He is grateful for it.
When his father passed, Joyce found a cardboard box filled with hundreds of videos of his matches. For years Michael senior had been recording every televised match. Joyce popped a few of the tapes in and watched a ghost move across the screen. “It was like looking at a different person,” he says. “It was a lifetime ago.” Those grainy tapes are a token of appreciation from his father, a reminder of all that Joyce accomplished, a reminder of what it meant then. What it means now is less certain and entirely up to Joyce. He is free to make that judgement.
Eventually, he played a tape for Jenna. She didn’t recognize the man on the screen either. She knows Joyce as something else, and something entirely more human. He is a husband, a father, and a friend. There is no need to scavenge the past for anything else.
“She watched it for like 30 minutes and thought it was funny,” he says, smiling. “Maybe one day.” He pauses and then finishes the thought. “Life goes on, you know?”
* * *
Sam Riches is a writer and journalist based in Toronto.
Editor: Mike Dang; Fact-checker: Michael Fitzgerald
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This story was co-published and co-funded by Racquet magazine and Longreads Members.