David Foster Wallace grew up as I did playing competitive junior tennis in the Midwest in the 1970s, and we both eventually wrote about the sport and its stars. The similarities pretty much end there. Wallace, who committed suicide last Friday at age 46, was an absolute genius, literally; he received a MacArthur Foundation grant, known widely as the genius award, a year after publishing his 1996 tour de force novel, Infinite Jest. Two years ago, he wrote about Roger Federer, " Federer As Religious Experience," a pairing that produced a stunning piece of non-fiction—the No. 1 forwarded story in 2006 from The New York Times online sports section.
It nearly didn't happen, as Wallace demanded a one-on-one interview during Wimbledon and Federer told me, in my role at the time as ATP head of communications, that he wasn't going to sit down for a profile during the most important tournament of the year.
"But Roger," I begged, "this guy is my idol!"
Federer laughed at this unusual twist to a one-on-one request, and he eventually relented. Afterwards, he was a bit perturbed, claiming that the questions were inane, the dude weird, and the whole exercise a complete waste of his time.
It was my turn to laugh. "Roger," I said, shaking my head like a high school physics teacher, "David wasn't listening to what you said, but how you responded, how you interacted with him and others before, during and after the interview, what was going on around you. Watch: You'll be blown away at his insight."
Indeed, the article articulated better than anything that I've ever read, before and since, the essence of Federer and his chosen sport. Wallace had come close before in an Esquire piece he wrote about journeyman player Michael Joyce (now Maria Sharapova's coach) a decade earlier, but Federer provided Wallace with an enigmatic subject more fitting of his own personal writing style. Even Federer admitted that he was impressed with the piece.
It's impossible to appreciate Wallace without devouring large chunks of his poetic prose (the same can be said of Federer and his game), but here's a taste from the article: "Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war."
In the article, Wallace whined about the hassles he encountered securing the Federer interview, and compared it to "the old story of someone climbing an enormous mountain to talk to the man seated lotus on top, except in this case the mountain is composed entirely of sports-bureaucrats." Sure, I'm happy to know Federer, but to be kicked by David Foster Wallace on his way up the mountain? Now that's something to brag about to my kids. RIP, DFW.
David Higdon has written for ESPN The Magazine, The New York Times and other publications.