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. Read more…