Levels of the Game, John McPhee 1969

It’s the 1968 U.S. Open at Forest Hills and for the first time in 13 years, an American will be in the finals and has a good chance to be the champion. That’s the framework that John McPhee uses for his terrific book about tennis, Arthur Ashe, and Clark Graebner.  The book’s focal point is Ashe, an African-American who was the first of his race to win some of the biggest tournaments in world tennis.  McPhee moves back and forth seamlessly from a volley or ace in the set to Ashe’s and Graebner’s backgrounds subtly showing how race, income, background, etc are determinants of social standing and opportunity in America.  The book is strangely timeless, though Ashe died nearly 30 years ago after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion during his two coronary artery bypass surgeries for heart disease  which manifested in his 30’s despite superb physical conditioning—-one more example of how his racial and economic background was determinant.  This is another of McPhee’s long journalism pieces from The New Yorker in the late 1960’s, a wonderful piece of writing even if you don’t know a steel racket from a service line.  While Graebner went on to win three consecutive clay court double titles with Marty Reissen, it is clear that Ashe is the world class champion both on and off the court.  A fine piece of sports writing and social commentary.

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