The Tennis Partner: A Doctor's Story of Friendship and Loss

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In 1991, Abraham Verghese moved west, bringing his wife and two young sons to the border town of El Paso, Texas. There he crossed paths with David Smith, a medical student who came to America from Australia on a tennis scholarship and played briefly on the pro tour before deciding to become a doctor. Recognizing some spark of commonality - perhaps just that of two strangers on the very edge of America - Verghese cajoled him into playing tennis again. On the wards, Verghese is teacher and mentor as he guides David...
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In 1991, Abraham Verghese moved west, bringing his wife and two young sons to the border town of El Paso, Texas. There he crossed paths with David Smith, a medical student who came to America from Australia on a tennis scholarship and played briefly on the pro tour before deciding to become a doctor. Recognizing some spark of commonality - perhaps just that of two strangers on the very edge of America - Verghese cajoled him into playing tennis again. On the wards, Verghese is teacher and mentor as he guides David through difficult and sometimes colorful clinical problems seen in a county hospital. He teaches him how to read the signs from the human body, to use his hands to percuss, and to use his mind to listen. On the tennis court, their roles are reversed: The clinician becomes the student - almost. David helps Verghese hone his strokes and sharpen his game. But Verghese, a compulsive collector since childhood of tennis lore and trivia, a compiler of notebooks on tennis heroes, ephemeral styles, and trendy strategies, rekindles David's love for the game, a love burnt out by the brutal competitiveness of the professional circuit. Perhaps this is how friendships between men are born: at work and at play. Against the stubborn, unyielding backdrop of the desert, their relationship grows increasingly rich and complex, more intimate than two men usually allow. Just when it seems that nothing can go wrong, that friendship will be able to conquer all, the dark beast from David's past emerges once again. As Verghese scrambles to rescue him, David proves that he is friend to everyone but himself. When David spirals out of control, almost everything Verghese has come to trust and believe in is threatened. It is a defining moment, the kind each of us must eventually face - it is from such adversity that our lives are carved.
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Editorial Reviews

Caroline Knapp
Wise and compassionate...Verghese is a fine writer, lyrical and controlled.... In his search to understand what happened to his friend, Verghese also touches upon more universal truths. -- New York Times
Pico Iyer
The Tennis Partner. . .becomes an anguished case history about. . .one person. . .destroying himself with addiction, and another [getting] addicted to trying to help him. . . .at its core his is a brave and heart-baring story about how even a teacher of internal medicine could not see inside the person closest to him.
Caroline Knapp
Verghese describes quite poignantly the way the medical profession fosters lonliness, discourages the expression of emotion, leaves individuals to battle their demons alone. But in his search to understand what happened to his friend Verghese also touches upon more universal truths. -- NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his eloquent memoir, My Own Country, Verghese described a parallel story, that of a stranger (himself) and AIDS both becoming part of a rural Tennessee town. Once again, Verghese weaves his own story with that of a place and another person to come up with something moving and insightful. As he tries to cope with a new job on the faculty of Texas Tech School of Medicine, the move to El Paso and the breakdown of his marriage, he meets David, a medical student and former tennis pro. Tennis matches with David reawaken Verghese's passion for the game, and soon the two become regular partners. Their connection is complicated by their shifting roles: Verghese, David's teacher in the hospital wards, becomes his student on the tennis court. For Verghese, the matches offer an escape from loneliness; for David, a recovering drug addict, even more is at stake. Only on the court can they reach a state of grace: "our tennis partnership was special, different, sacred like a marriage." Ultimately, as David's life takes some disturbing turns, Verghese finds himself forced to choose between his role as friend and that of authority figure. While David's story provides the main narrative drive of the book, it's interwoven with Verghese's descriptions of his AIDS patients, his relationship with his sons and meditations on El Paso's distinctive landscape. It's a hard trick but Verghese combines all these elements into a cohesive whole, moving easily between moments of quiet reflection and anxious anticipation. If, as he writes, "to tell a life story [is] to engage in a form of seduction," then Verghese is a master of romance.
Library Journal
Following his sympathetic treatment of AIDS patients in the celebrated My Own Country, one of Library Journal's Best Books of 1994, Verghese offers this study of a doctor friend (and tennis partner) whose life is ruined by drugs.
Kirkus Reviews
The acclaimed author of My Own Country (1996) turns his gaze inward to a pair of crises that hit even closer to home than the AIDS epidemic of which he wrote previously. Verghese took a teaching position at Texas Tech's medical school, and it's his arrival in the unfamiliar city of El Paso that triggers the events of his second book (parts of which appeared in The New Yorker). His marriage, already on the rocks in My Own Country, has collapsed utterly and the couple agree to a separation. In a new job in a new city, he finds himself more alone than he has ever been. But he becomes acquainted with a charming fourth-year student on his rotation, David, a former professional tennis player from Australia.

Verghese, an ardent amateur himself, begins to play regularly with David and the two become close friends, indeed deeply dependent on one another. Gradually, the younger man begins to confide in his teacher and friend. David has a secret, known to most of the other students and staff at the teaching hospital but not to the recently arrived Verghese; he is a recovering drug addict whose presence at Tech is only possible if he maintains a rigorous schedule of AA meetings and urine tests. When David relapses and his life begins to spiral out of control, Verghese finds himself drawn into the young man's troubles. As in his previous book, Verghese distinguishes himself by virtue not only of tremendous writing skill—he has a talented diagnostician's observant eye and a gift for description—but also by his great humanity and humility. Verghese manages to recount the story of the failure of his marriage without recriminations and with a remarkable evenhandedness.Likewise, he tells David's story honestly and movingly. Although it runs down a little in the last 50 pages or so, this is a compulsively readable and painful book, a work of compassion and intelligence.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060931131
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/1/1999
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

A practicing physician and a professor of medicine at Stanford University, Abraham Verghese is the author of My Own Country and Cutting for Stone. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and other publications. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

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Read an Excerpt

There are two Thanksgivings in El Paso. The one in November is observed much as it is in the rest of America: turkey, dressing, corn, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, then motor shutdown, a retreat to the couch and TV. Six hundred thousand Pasenos watch the Cowboys play in Texas Stadium six hundred miles east.
The other Thanksgiving is celebrated on the last Sunday in April. It commemorates the day Don Juan de Onate's party of one hundred and thirty families, two hundred and seventy single men, eleven Franciscan friars, eighty-three wagons, and seven thousand cattle discovered El Paso del Norte, the Pass to the North. Previous Spanish explorers had taken the routes along the Conchos River to the Rio Grande, but Onate's colonists had marched from Santa Barbara in New Spain (Mexico) straight up and across the treacherous desert north of Chihuahua city. By the time the advance party of eight horsemen scuffed through brush and cottonwood and finally saw the Rio Grande, they were cotton-mouthed, crazy with thirst. Two horses plunged in and were swept away. Two others drank enough to rupture their stomachs. What Onate had discovered after the fifty-day desert crossing—the last five days with no water at all—was a magnificent valley formed by the Rio Grande as it emerged from the southernmost spurs of the Rockies.
Here, on April 20, 1598, Onate stopped and held a Mass of thanksgiving. He claimed the new territory—New Mexico—in the name of Philip II of Spain a full two decades before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. "I take all jurisdiction, civil as well as criminal, high as well as low, from the edge of the mountains to the stones and sand in therivers, and the leaves of the trees . . ." This opening into the new territory—el paso—would be the caravan route, the lifeline of New Mexico, the jewel in the Camino Real.

Just as there are two Thanksgivings, there are two El Pasos. One is visible from the highway, an El Paso that a trucker traversing America on Interstate 10 from Jacksonville to Los Angeles might see and find nothing to distinguish it from any other American city but for the way it and the Franklin Mountains spring out of the parched and desolate land. He might catch glimpses of the Rio Grande bordering the freeway and beyond that see houses in Juarez, Mexico, sitting on a rise.
It might seem to such an observer as if a desert wind had gleaned pieces of Sacramento, Hackensack, Des Moines, and Dallas and deposited them here where they have rooted and now sprout Blockbusters, Kmarts, Targets, U-Hauls, and every other franchise flavor, their fluorescent signs beckoning like listless whores from both sides of the freeway. And to the trucker's eyes, what little desert he can see past the strip malls and billboards is occupied by bulldozers and cement mixers that are paving over cactus and creosote with the same abandon they had shown Phoenix only twenty years before. From the cab of the truck, the town's founding father would appear to be Sam Walton, and the Wal-Mart edifice its epicenter. And then, fifteen or so exits later, the vision is gone—a forgettable mirage perhaps.

?Donde esta la estacion del ferrocarril? asked the audio Spanish tape in my car.
"La estacion del ferrocarril esta a la derecha," I replied, though I had no idea where the train station was.
After three days of unpacking boxes in our new El Paso house, I had risen before dawn, dressed for my first day at work, and then joined a wagon train of early risers, speeding in two columns, headlights on, down a looping access road to that same freeway. Fortunately, the sign clearly said I-10 east, because in the limitless desert, without the sun, there was almost no way to tell. When Vasquez de Coronado and his party explored the Southwest in 1541, they used the sunrise as a guide, firing an arrow at the sun, and then, before they overtook the first arrow, letting fly another one and another, following this aerial trail until they came to the Rio Grande.
I sped past a square building, and off to one side I saw into a lighted window. A white-uniformed, dark-haired man hovered over someone else's knees, snowcaps on shapeless thighs. He stood as if picking logs from a woodpile. That's all I saw as I passed by. I swiveled my neck against the edge of the seat belt. I thought I saw a sign for the Coronado Nursing Center.
Then I was on the freeway, racing through the desert, the Franklin Mountains now on my left, the river on my right, that tableau from the nursing home well behind me.
But my mind insisted on lingering there, filling in the blanks. I could see the attendant folding over and wedging the soiled draw sheet under the bottom of a withered woman as she lay on one side. I could see him flip her over, using her knees as a lever. One tug and the bundled-up sheet was free and joined the growing pile in the laundry bag. She looked at his face, unable to speak, a prisoner in her own stroke-ravaged brain. And on his face was the set look of a man finding the necessary distance needed to finish work that was not particularly gratifying.

Alone behind our bedroom windows, alone in our cars, towns give us the necessary illusion that we belong. Until that moment, I had felt camouflaged in this new town, shielded from prying eyes, free in my new job to spin a new persona, to pitch my myth, the African-born-but-of-Indian-parentage-naturalized-American saga and to weave it into all the other dusty histories of The Pass. I loved the role of newcomer to town, relished the contrast between the lands I had left behind and this desert where there were broad spaces even between raindrops.
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Table of Contents

"Abraham Verghese has shown us once again that he is an old-fashioned physician of the soul. [He] writes in a miraculous style -- courageous yet tender. The Tennis Partner supersedes any memoir I've ever read. It is a wonderful examination of what it means to be alive."--Kaye Gibbons, author of On the Occasion Of My Last Afternoon

"Verghese weaves his own story with that of a place and another person to come up with something moving and insightful, as he writes, to tell a life story [is] to engage in a form of seduction, then Verghese is a master of romance."
--Publishers Weekly

Abraham Verghese's award-winning memoir My Own Country -- named one of the five best books of 1994 by Time magazine -- bore witness to the onslaught of AIDS in a small Tennessee mountain town. Dr. Verghese's treatment of and outreach to these patients revealed something vital about the American spirit, reminding us, wrote the Washington Post Book World, of "what is honorable and charitable in the way humans behave toward each other."

But that was just the beginning of the doctor's story. The Tennis Partner, Verghese, born in Africa to Indian parents, once again writes eloquently of his patients, his marriage, and most poignantly, of an extraordinary friendship with a medical student. Like Calvin Trillan's Remembering Denny, The Tennis Partner is a visceral, deeply honest book about one man confronting his own fears and insecurities with clarity and emotional truth. It is also a searing look at the phenomenon of drug abuse among physicians and the fragile nature of friendship.

In 1991, when Verghese moved west to the border town of El Paso, Texas, he crossed paths with David Smith, a medical student who had immigrated to America from Australia and played tennis on the pro tour before becoming a doctor. Just as Verghese needed a partner on the court, Smith needed a mentor in the county hospital.

What begins on the tennis court as a workout between two colleagues evolves into a tight relationship in which confidences are shared and secrets are kept; this developing friendship also serves as a soothing balm for Verghese's disintegrating marriage.

Yet, it is Verghese's spontaneous confession that his marriage is failing that provokes Smith to admit that he is a recovering intravenous cocaine addict, desperately struggling to hold on to his girlfriend, career, and sobriety. Smith admits that their tennis ritual and friendship are his only lifelines, without which he would have long returned to the needle.

When Smith begins shooting up with cocaine again, Verghese worries that the drug's lure will prove to be stronger than their relationship. His hope that his friend can find his way back from the abyss competes with his anger over Smith's weakness.

Join Book Talk to chat with Abraham Verghese about his heartfelt, illuminating new book, The Tennis Partner -- truly an examination of the care we must take with those we love.

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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Abraham Verghese's memoir The Tennis Partner tells the story of a deeply moving friendship between two doctors. Relocating to an unfamiliar border city as his marriage unravels, physician Abraham Verghese feels alienated and yet strangely unburdened. When he meets a medical student, David Smith, they begin a tennis ritual that allows both men to shed their inhibitions and find security in the sport they love and in each other. The bond they develop as their game progresses becomes increasingly rich and complex. In the hospital, Abraham is the teacher and David the student; on the courts their roles are reversed. Abraham confides in David, telling him about the disintegration of his marriage. David in turn tells him that he is a recovering cocaine addict, and recounts the long saga of his many relapses before he finally became sober. Their intimate friendship reaches new heights, but just when things seem perfect, David begins pulling away, leading to a starling ending which Verghese captures with the tender voice and perceptive eye of a skilled clinician. Ultimately, this is an affecting, heartfelt account of a compassionate doctor and his struggle to understand--and to save--a friend he has come to cherish.

Topics for Discussion
1. Do you think David might have been a happier and healthier person had he chosen a different profession instead of medicine? Is there something about medicine that attract addiction-prone individuals or that causes people to turn to drugs?

2. After returning from the Talbott-Marsh clinic, David proudly tells Verghese he has at last found "true recovery". A short time later he is back on drugs and moredesperate than ever. What happened? Why does he relapse so quickly and tragically?

3. In a sense, this is a book about foreigners adjusting to a new country. How does Verghese uses foreignness and alienation to heighten the intensity of his narrative? Talk about David's story as a kind of dark underside of the American dream of renewal.

4. "Tennis was so much more than a game," Verghese writes at one point -- and yet, as he acknowledges at the end, it is also just a game -- a simple, even slightly absurd ritual "of the yellow ball." How does Verghese manage to tie together so many of the book's complex strands through tennis?

5. Do you think Verghese is being honest -- with himself and with us -- about the sexual element in his attraction to David? Do you think this is basically a healthy relationship? Or do you feel Verghese is unaware of how deeply involved and dependent he is on David?

6. David stands at a juncture between two opposite paths: an orderly middle class existence in medicine with a wife and a "dream house"; and a hell of drug addiction, shame, poverty, disease and death. Does David choose hell in part because the respectable middle class existence is so hollow, so spiritually vacant? What other alternative could there be for someone like David? What about for Verghese himself?

7. Do you really believe that drug addiction is a "disease" comparable to diabetes or cancer, or do you think that talking about it in this way is harmful because it somehow absolves the addict of responsibility? Which view does Verghese endorse?

8. Talk about the statement that "David is responsible for David" and how it plays out in the two men's relationship in the final pages of the book. How can a true friend deny responsibility for his friend in crisis? Did Verghese act responsibly in calling the police or did he betray his friend's trust?

About the Author: Abraham Verghese is a professor of medicine at Texas Tech University and the author of My Own Country. He lectures on medical humanities at many medical schools and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He lives with his wife, Sylvia, and three children in El Paso, Texas.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 17 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2000

    A Powerful Story of Searching and Harsh Truths

    Having been personally trained by Dr. Verghese, I can say that his talent is truly remarkable. It is rather interesting how he describes all the events and scenes of El Paso so vividly and true, that when you are actually at the many locations in the book, one can recall and relay the exact details he describes in The Tennis Partner. He is very poetic, with an incredibly eloquent touch of deepness in his writing. With his worldly experiences as well as his vast knowledge of medicine, Dr. Verghese truly treats his patients with 'culture and sensitivity.' Some may say that I am biased for having known him, but if you could meet him and actually be trained by him, you would be able to see his incredible compassion for his patients, his students, medicine, writing, and the world itself. Very admirable.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2013

    Favorite read this year!

    Beautiful writing style. Reads like a novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2013

    Highly recommended

    This is an incredibly honest accounting of a friendship -- and how the underlying needs, lacks and problems affect its outcome.

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  • Posted March 10, 2009


    I was one of many individuals to have the privilege of knowing Dr. Verghese and David Smith through my association with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso. The story relating to David's tragic life and death hit me like it happened only yesterday. David was a person that everyone liked. He had a promising career as a physician who wanted to specialize in Emergency Medicine. Unfortunately, his drug addiction brought about his tragic end. This book should be read by anyone that has or is suffering from a drug addiction. From Dr. Verghese's story, one will be drawn into the promise and the darkness that overtook a young man before he could visualize and follow his dream.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 1999

    A tennis fanatic's must-read

    For any student of the game of tennis who is madly in love with the game and its ability to completely take over your life, 'The Tennis Partner' will ring true in many ways. Verghese understands the passion behind the game and how it can draw two men together despite the difficulties in their relationship. Written with a lucid prose, the book sometimes feels a bit raw in its emotion, but you can hardly fault the author for baring his soul about his love for the game of tennis and his desire to share it with his friend, despite his friend's struggle with drug addiction. The book also treads fragile ground by venturing forth into intense relationships between heterosexual men. The book is risky in its integrity as well as its intensity in the author's descriptions of his emotions for his tennis partner. But, best of all, he desribes beautifully what many of us love so much - the game of tennis.

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