At this point in his young life Michael Joyce holds three notable distinctions. To his chagrin the least of which will probably be that of professional tennis player. Joyce was no slouch, but topping out at a career-high of No. 64 is a killer to long-term notoriety. Since leaving the Tour he became better-known for his role first as hitting partner; then coach; and forever cheerleader for Maria Sharapova. For each of Sharapova’s three Slam titles Joyce was in her corner clapping, nervously rubbing his round, stubbly face, and reminding her when to eat bananas.
Earlier this month, after more than six years together, Sharapova split with Joyce. In tennis circles, that is a long time with one voice. She’s opting instead for Swede, Thomas Hogstedt, who has worked with Tommy Haas and Li Na. Sharapova has been complimentary of Hogstedt’s experience and professionalism, but his greatest asset (other than impeccable wingman skills picked up from his days with Haas), is that he’s not Joyce. Personal feelings aside, it’s the obvious move for Sharapova: she’s become stagnant and hasn’t been much of a factor since coming back from a shoulder injury. A fresh voice is needed and the player can’t fire herself. Will it work? If Hogstedt can help Sharapova rediscover her once redoubtable serve, then it will seem like the wisest of moves. If not, Hogstedt will soon join Joyce in unemployment.
I was in California, along with Madhitter, working on a piece about Sharapova and her coach, Robert Lansdorp, right around the time she and Joyce were first getting acquainted. Sharapova was around 10th in the world, not yet a Grand Slam winner, and in need of better practice competition. Both were Lansdorp pupils, and the ground stroke guru played matchmaker. I remember being struck by how easily the shorter, and seemingly out-of-shape Joyce could manipulate Sharapova on the court; and how unjust it must have felt to him that he was searching for a soft landing spot while his much inferior opponent was on the verge of making a mint.
It was the first time I had seen Joyce play, but he was well-known to me. I had David Foster Wallace to thank for that. A rare literary talent with a passion for tennis, DFW used Joyce as his muse in a profile that appeared in the July 1996 Esquire, which was as much a study of the sport as the player himself. Ten years later DFW wrote a more heralded tennis piece for the New York Times primarily because his focus was Roger Federer. It’s a must-read for any tennis fan, yet it falls short of his analysis of Joyce. With his gymnastic prose and extensive footnotes, reading DFW can sometimes prove exhausting. But he had a gift for making seemingly ordinary subjects impossibly interesting. He turned a little-known tennis player into the dude from the Dos Equis commercials.
I had a brief chat with Joyce that day in California, and I brought up DFW’s piece. It was obvious the subject was not a source of pride. Joyce was only 22 when it was written, and some of the details undoubtedly stung. When tackling non-fiction, DFW fancied himself an essayist, not a journalist, and he had a predilection for making assumptions rather than asking questions. He made harsh determinations about Joyce’s intelligence, limitations as a player and, perhaps indulgently, even his sexual prowess. When I met Joyce he was closer to 30, but still seemingly wounded and confused as to what was the big deal. His attitude seemed to be: It was just a magazine article; get over it.
Yet for tennis eggheads, that long, poetic portrait is Michael Joyce’s enduring legacy.
Player = Journeyman
Coach = Produce purveyor
Literary Figure = Immortal
There’s no way Hogstedt can top that.