THERE'S A COMFORTING symmetry to tennis. Neatly bounded by white lines, the game is reducible to force and reaction, a simple exchange of energy between the players. "Nothing was as important as keeping the ball in play," writes Abraham Verghese in his elegiac memoir The Tennis Partner. "The universe and our very lives depended on this one thing: Get the ball back over the net just one more time."
For Verghese, a doctor at a teaching hospital in El Paso, tennis is a refuge from a dissolving marriage. He has recently moved away from his home, his wife, and two sons, into a sterile condo. Things are even worse for his tennis partner, David Smith. A medical student and former pro-tennis player, Smith has a serious problem with white lines. He has double-faulted on rehab and is clinging tenuously to sobriety and sanity. Thrown together by circumstance, the two men begin a fragile friendship around a weekly tennis game. They hold themselves together with the ritual, banging the ball back and forth in a rhythmic approximation of normal life. "In the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in space," recalls Verghese, "we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricious...each time we played, this feeling of order, of mastery, was awakened."
Verghese, who is best known for My Own Country, a memoir about treating AIDS patients in rural Tennessee, is a keen, almost obsessive observer. As a physician, he diagnoses his patients' maladies with ritualistic fervor, checking exposed skin for lesions, even tracking the pulse as he shakes a hand. By overlooking the slightest bit of evidence, he fears, he'll miss the mark of disease upon the body. Although Verghese is an equally compulsive cataloger of narrative detail, his clear, unaffected voice cuts through the heft of description with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel. This sincerity saves The Tennis Partner from being a bathetic addiction saga or sports-as-metaphor memoir. Watching through Verghese's eyes, it's hard not to be affected by his tennis partner's inevitable slide into chaos.
The irony of this situation is that Abraham Verghese should be able to save David Smith. He's a specialist in internal medicine, after all, trained to recognize diseases at a glance. Somehow, though, the fact that both Verghese and Smith are doctors only isolates them from one another. Surrounded by the sick and the dying, they are stripped of their capacity for empathy, emptied and left without the ability to heal themselves or each other. Perhaps their loneliness is endemic to the doctor's trade, a profession that rewards compulsive behavior, arrogance, and cold detachment. The same obsessive traits that motivate these men also push them over into addiction and despair. The redemption of The Tennis Partner is that for a few hours, sheltered between the clean white lines of a tennis court, Verghese and Smith are able to silence their demons and concentrate on getting the ball over the net one more time.