The Tennis Partner
By Abraham Verghese HarperCollins, $25
This excellent book is about tennis to the same degree that Moby Dick is about whaling. The game, while certainly as important to this physician-author as the high seas were to Melville, is ultimately a device with which Verghese can explore much larger themes—friendship, love, healing, alienation, loneliness, betrayal, addiction and, inevitably, death, not to mention Verghese's penetrating insights into his own profession, medicine. That he so capably accomplishes all this in a memoir, while at the same time holding the reader in his narrative spell, is no small literary achievement.
At a troubled time in his own life, Verghese, employed at a teaching hospital in El Paso, encounters a medical student who not only shares his lifelong love of tennis but who also once played the game professionally. Somewhat timidly, the doctor invites the younger man, a transplanted Australian, to play with him at a tennis club. There, on the court, the roles of mentor and prot�g� are reversed. In time the two men develop a mutual sensitivity at play that extends into their professional and private lives. In surpassing word pictures, Verghese captures in their rallies on court the tensions of intertwining lives growing increasingly complex. Verghese, struggling with his own marital separation, learns to his mounting consternation that his genial and accommodating tennis partner is, in fact, a deeply troubled man.
At one point, the partner, David Smith, remarks to Verghese, almost off-handedly, "There's something I don't understand...you're as passionate about tennis as you are about medicine. It seems like...one of those would be enough.... And meanwhile, see, for me...all I could excel at was that one bloody thing, tennis. And...when it was over I had to find a life, didn't I?"
So a tragic story of drug addiction gradually unravels. This book transcends its purported sporting theme. It belongs in the library of the thoughtful reader, although it doesn't hurt if that reader also happens to be a tennis buff.