You might not think a 35-page pamphlet could take a reader on a rollercoaster ride with stops that pose questions about death, the nature of time, the mysteries of the male anatomy, the limits of language and whether a truly stellar performance by a ballboy can win back the love of a ballgirl.
But Cheston Knapp’s fictional short story A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love ticks all these boxes and then some. It is published by One Story, the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, available at www.OneStory.com.
The story, about two ballpersons during the historic 2001 Wimbledon quarterfinal in which Roger Federer beat Pete Sampras, uses the match’s structure and some of our game’s vocabulary to romp through a number of literary and philosophical questions with a light touch that belies the seriousness of the issues Knapp addresses.
You don’t have to know what “swamp-ass” is or catch all of the references to the American poet Walt Whitman and the French novelist Gustave Flaubert to appreciate what Knapp is trying to do. Lucky for us tennis fans, we know that when Knapp mentions “Shotmaker Deluxe,” he’s talking about the top-of-the line ball machine.
The story’s narrator-ballboy, William Able, is trying to win back the affections of the lovely Charlotte, his colleague on the ball picking-up and towel-supplying, on-court team in the quarterfinal match. Knapp sets up a situation in which William’s hopes are aligned with those of Sampras, both of them representing a glorious past. William wants to regain his nights of making out with Charlotte; as Sampras wants another Wimbledon title.
William is rooting for Pistol Pete to beat the upstart Federer, and fumes throughout the match because he thinks Charlotte is flirting with the then 19-year old Swiss.
By the time match point in the fifth set is completed, Federer, embodying the present, has beaten Sampras, the representative of the past. In a parallel defeat, William must watch Charlotte walk off the court with another ballboy’s arm around her shoulder.
But William’s romantic setback is only one aspect of Knapp’s mediation on the way a tennis match can mirror a number of other concepts from the sublime to the, well, “swamp-ass” is having a sweaty ass, a problem for Sampras in Knapp’s version of the match.
Listen to Knapp’s description of the end of the match for an example of other tones he can hit. “We understand that this match is a consecration of the present, of the moment. We are witness to something no spoken language can adequately express.”
He also discusses the tennis concepts of “playing within yourself” and the kind of transcendence players feel during those all too brief moments when they are “in the zone.”
Knapp’s tennis knowledge feeds into his storytelling prowess at other levels to make a compelling work of art. The tennis fan will gain an insight on what a Center Court Wimbledon match is like from the perspective of the ballboys and Charlotte. Knapp uses ballboy lingo, such as “I’m on balls,” an understatement for this writer, to give us a new perspective on a familiar setting, Centre Court. The phrase, “I’m on balls,” refers to the ballboy who is responsible for opening the new balls and switching out the old ones.
In one compelling image that acknowledges the way we players often react to seeing players like Sampras and Federer perform and which, at the same time, displays his image-making gift, Knapp describes what some fans will do after watching the Sampras-Federer encounter. “Later, we will go out onto tennis courts, scattered like dropped jacks around London and we’ll try to hit like we’ve seen these two guys hit …”
Of course, there is a rule in reviewing fiction that you have to find something wrong with the story. It wasn’t easy, but I did. Knapp has the 17- or 18-year-old Charlotte, a Londoner in 2001, paraphrasing Muhammad Ali’s famous line about “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I think she’d be more likely to be quoting hip-hop artist MIA than Ali, but this is a minor objection.
The author, Knapp, managing editor of Tin House magazine, touches on the limits of language and notes the way a physical performance like a tennis match can transcend those confines. But the whole purpose of literature is to push against the limits of language, to use words to get past the limitations of using words and that is what Knapp accomplishes in A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love.