The Pequod Review:
Levels of the Game is structured as a profile of the tennis players Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as told through a point-by-point breakdown of their 1968 US Open semifinal match. John McPhee has first-rate insights into the players’ psychologies, their methods of preparation (it’s astonishing how well each player knew the other going into the match), how their personalities impact their playing styles, and even the structure of 1960s professional tennis (both men were considered amateurs and held full-time jobs separate from tennis).
McPhee also has extensive quotes from the players themselves, who prove to be unusually perceptive. Here is Graeber describing his playing style compared to Ashe’s:
I’ve never been a flashy stylist, like Arthur. I’m a fundamentalist. Arthur is a bachelor. I am married and conservative. I’m interested in business, in the market, in children’s clothes. It affects the way you play the game. He’s not a steady player. He’s a wristy slapper. Sometimes he doesn’t even know where the ball is going. He’s carefree, lackadaisical, forgetful.…liberal. In a way, ‘liberal’ is a synonym for ‘loose.’ And that’s exactly the way Arthur plays.
Here is Ashe on his opponent:
There is not much variety in Clark’s game. It is steady, accurate, and conservative. He makes few errors. He plays still, compact, Republican tennis. He’s a damned smart player, a good thinker, but not a limber and flexible thinker. His game is predictable, but he has a sounder volley than I have, and a better forehand—more touch, more power. His forehand is a hell of a weapon. His moves are mediocre. His backhand is underspin, which means he can’t hit it hard. He just can’t hit a heavily top-spun backhand. He hasn’t much flair or finesse, except in the lob. He has the best lob of any of the Americans. He’s solid and consistent. He tries to let you beat yourself.