It’s 4-4 in the third, a set apiece, and Sampras is serving, 30-15. He hammers a first so huge and hard and fast that the ball’s just a yellow blur of physics equations. The return’s nothing but a desperate falling lunge for a clunky framer that rockets the ball up into the stands here at Centre Court. Sampras’s serve is one of History’s best and he gets free points from it all the time, especially on grass. There’s an awkward pause in the match’s momentum as we all watch the ball finish its arching flight. Everyone knows it’s going to be way, way out, it’s not that, but the chair umpire has to make the call official before the match can get back underway. This is a gentleman’s game, after all, and there are rules.
I’m waiting with everyone else here for the ball to drop. My team has drawn this fourth round match between the top seed and returning champ, Pete Sampras, and the young Swiss 15-seed, Roger Federer. There are six of us in all, four bases, two nets. At this high level of play, we are an indispensable presence on the court. We make sure the players don’t have to worry over the balls and towels. We free the game up to be nothing more than the game itself. We all have our hands clasped criminally behind our backs. Our legs are planted on imaginary Xs around the court’s grass. During the training, when as head ballboy I ran the newbies through the drill, I encouraged them to remember that every action they make on court begins and ends, discretely, on an X. I’m out here, shoulders and back braced, the definition of statuesque, leading by example.
Cheston Knapp is managing editor of Tin House magazine and director of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. Originally from Richmond, VA, he now lives in Portland, OR, with the decisions he’s made. This is his first published story.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CK: Growing up, my family was a sports family. Dad coached my brothers’ and my youth basketball and soccer teams and even though Mom didn’t know what a rebound was and thought “header” was locker room code for something dirty, she could play tennis. It was something we could all do. And we watched sports almost as much as we played them. I was a lacrosse guy then, though, and now I watch and play far more tennis than when I was a kid. I stay up through the wee hours to watch the Australian Open. I follow the non-Major tournaments online. I’ve tried to watch matches on a scrambled and fuzzed out Tennis Channel, because I’m not allowed to have it. A few years ago I was really down and feeling homesick in that immense, incurable way that just dwarfs nostalgia and I tried to distract myself by watching tennis. You can’t watch as much as I did (yes, one may download or even Netflix classic matches) without thinking at some point “What exactly is the deal with those ballboys?” So that started something pinging around in my head.
Then a little later I was reading a lot of Heidegger. He has these ideas of the everydayness and publicness of Being, which help comprise his idea of das Man, the “they”—the “they” is, in a sense, the crowd, the enemy of the genuine, “ownmost” possibilities of a self. “Publicness...is insensitive to every difference of level and of genuineness and thus never gets to the ‘heart of the matter.’ By publicness everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone.” But Heidegger’s not the Camus of The Stranger. He knows das Man is necessary and inescapable and he defines it as part of Dasein’s [existence’s] “positive construction.” It was incredible to me then how much these ideas could be understood through and overlaid on sports, tennis in particular. And although they lit up a certain tug of war inside me, Heidegger’s insights are more structural than anything else and don’t really yield a framework for a moral understanding of the deep gritty immediate uncertain emotional embattled gracious feeling of being alive, nothing close to what a story can accomplish. I admit, though, if I get going about this stuff, which started a few more balls pinging around in my head, half of me starts wanting very badly to beat the shit out of the other half. I’ve documented this struggle in a photograph, titled “Self-Portrait of a Man in Love.”
But it’s a tough question, though, right, when you really start to think about it? Because, I mean, where does this stuff come from? I recently went to hear a really famous Oprah author read and afterwards someone asked him that question people ask at readings: “Where do you get your inspiration?” He went on and on about voices speaking to him in the shower and other self-mythologizing crap that made him sound like a consummate cheesedick. He’d bought into many bogus ideas people have about “creativity” and was unthinkingly selling it back to a crowd that was just slurping it up like they were part some kind of sick pyramid scheme run by das Man. (“By publicness everything gets obscured...”) Anyway, I believe this is dishonest in some very basic way. Now, I have a very smart friend, Chris—we played tennis a few times when I was 19, until I knocked out my two front teeth during our last friendly match—and he’s finishing up a doctorate in philosophy. From time to time he’ll send me choice quotes from his reading. There was one from a Merleau-Ponty essay called “Cezanne’s Doubt”: “Before expression, there is nothing but a vague fever, and only the work itself, completed and understood, will prove that there was something rather than nothing to be found there.” I love that phrase, the “vague fever.” That’s about as concrete as you want to get with this, I think. Because in that fever you’re surrounded by the world on all sides, having taken in other artists’ work, anecdotes from friends, conversations overheard on the bus, etc. You’re always already in the world. But when I start going like this I feel that menacing half of me rise up and flex in a way that means just stop, Cheston. Stop...
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
CK: I’d say making the fictional elements, the William/Charlotte/Freddy arc, as complete and compelling as the non-fictional tennis ones. For a long time I distrusted the emotion of the story, worried that William’s anger and confusion and lust were somehow not enough to carry a reader through. I got caught up with the comforts of writing the competitive spectacle of the match. It took the final editing process for me to let go of much of my apprehension and go with it. (Thanks Hannah!) Also, I’m a semi-devoted Federer fan, so writing William as so much a Sampras one took some serious distancing.
HT: The match provides such a perfect structure for the story. Why did you choose this Sampras/Federer game, in particular?
CK: In their competitive careers, these two guys met only once, in this match. Sampras retired a year later. But History now proves this to be one of those passing-of-the-torch moments, greatness to greatness. I thought that fit with the slightly absurd ballboy conceit, too. William hanging on to his past, the youth conquering age thread that runs through both arcs. The match itself also has a lot of back and forth starting around the third set, a fair number of momentum shifts and fun points, so I figured it wouldn’t be hard to sustain a reader’s interest, that is, if she signs on from the beginning. And who wouldn’t want to sign on for this:
HT: At the end of the story, you drop William’s POV and switch to a group POV instead. Can you talk about your decision to do this, and what you think it accomplishes in the story?
CK: I’ll preface by saying I think for the most part that the reason for a writer’s decisions, made in the “vague fever,” are essentially hidden until they’re made. It’s like a tracker who follows a trail to its end and must go forward on a hunch. It only becomes clear in retrospect that the decision was “true” or “right” or not. But yeah, the end here is a little bit of a gamble. When I landed on it as a strategy, I knew in some unspeakable, occult way that I’d hit on the ending’s structure. (There are other stories that utilize shifts like this, of course. A few that jump immediately to mind are Amy Hempel’s “The Harvest,” Jim Shepard’s “Sans Farine,” and in a weirder way Wallace’s “Good Old Neon.”) So looking back, I think part of the decision was just purely technical—I couldn’t keep up the tension for another set, I’d exhausted the William/Charlotte, Federer/Sampras stuff. And it was already by that point really long, so I had to stop the action of the match. I also needed a little afterburner of momentum to keep the reader intrigued, and the shift felt like a good way to do that.
Now there were also certain other theoretical things kicking around in my head, which goes back to the Heidegger. But I think it’s dangerous to talk about that stuff, and can really contaminate the story. So I’ll let it stand there and hope and pray the action and emotion draws a reader through.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
CK: After Federer lost to Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008, I spent three or four months working through my grief of that loss by plugging away on a draft of the story. There was a lot of research, too. I more or less wore out my DVD of the match trying to find the best place to start the action. I have little shorthand notes of what happened on every point. By the time I’d finished a draft, Federer had won the U.S. Open for the 5th consecutive time, so I sat on it for another few months, worked on other things. When three months later he again lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final in 2009 in a heart-wrencher, basically giving up in the fifth, after which he famously cried while receiving the runner-up trophy, I pulled the story out of its drawer and made changes here and there, tinkered and sent it off. And then I did a couple more drafts with Hannah, say about another month or so, before feeling not totally embarrassed by and ashamed of it. So what’s that, about eight or nine months?
HT: What are you working on now?
CK: Pretty much just this:
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CK: I have this quote from Kafka up in my office: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” I don’t know if this is advice exactly or even whether this works, but it’s a nice idea. It fits with a notion Heidegger has called “hearkening”—sort of like deep listening; chronos is to hearing what kairos is to hearkening—which if I didn’t fear my own right fist, I’d go on and on about.