I’m not a sports person, and I went into reading this novel knowing nothing about tennis beyond the basics: they hit the ball back and forth until someone misses and for some reason the score goes up by 15 at a time. For someone who knows more about tennis than me, there’s a lot of detailed descriptions of the various matches throughout the book, talking about backhands and deuces and sets and all the strategy and mind games that go into being a winner. I was a bit lost through those parts, but I really enjoyed the other parts of the book: the parts about this character’s life, his dreams, his psychology, and the friends and women he met along the way.
In between the tennis matches there’s sex, drama, battles with family, bruised egos, paparazzi scandals, and even a few life-or-death situations. The book follows Jaxie Skinner from age 3 to 38, through his early relationships and young tennis career, then into his comeback both as a returning tennis star and as a man who is finally figuring out what he really wants in life. He looks at people in a way that adds some new insight into their lives, and the analysis of people’s desires and motivations is what I found the most interesting. Even during the tennis matches, I was more interested in reading about how some players would get psyched out and succumb to anger, impatience, immaturity, or overconfidence. In most of the matches, I felt like these personality faults were what really led to someone’s defeat, more than anything about the actual hitting of the ball and whether you played close to the net or far back from it.
There were a few sections here and there that seemed underdeveloped and overdramatized, specifically when dealing with a couple of Jaxie’s relationships. On two separate occasions he gets involved with girls that are bad news, and he ends up getting in some serious trouble (once with a girl’s jealous ex, the other time with a woman’s husband when he discovered her affair with Jaxie). Since these relationships weren’t developed enough to really give me a strong investment in them, the resulting volatile endings seemed a bit over the top. By comparison, the two more well-developed relationships (one with a Russian tennis star, the other with a college girl when Jaxie is in his 30’s) were more integral and memorable. In the end, I felt like the book would have been stronger if it had only focused on the two more meaningful and important relationships, and if it had skipped over the two less important, glossed-over relationships. Four relationships (early teens, late teens, 20’s, and 30’s) is realistic enough when looking at this long of a stretch of someone’s life, but I think it was more than the narrative could support.
That said, the rest of the book was interesting and kept me involved right up until the end. The couple of slow spots didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment. And the fact that I don’t like tennis at all didn’t make me like the book any less. I read the book for the character development, not for the sports, and I enjoyed what I got out of it.