The Inner Game of Carrie Soto

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s writing style can often be described as engaging, emotional, and, above all, character-driven. Fans of her work know she has this talent for creating vivid and complex characters readers can’t help but root for in overcoming compelling personal struggles. Yes, these heroes and villains play larger than life but are always relatable. And her superpower is transporting readers to distinct eras, whether it’s a glamorous world in “Malibu Rising” or the rock scene of the 1970s in “Daisy Jones & The Six.” The latter, which is now a faithful homage to the source material playing on Amazon Prime, is told through interviews with the members of the band, their families, friends, and associates, as well as through newspaper articles.

The plot centers on the relationship between Daisy Jones, a young, beautiful, and troubled singer-songwriter, and Billy Dunne, the band’s lead singer. United to collaborate on an album, their creative and passionate chemistry fuels the Six’s success. The setting of the era bleeds into the novel’s themes and challenges including drug use, love, loss, creativity, and the sacrifices necessary for success.

This Brings Me to the Grass Courts

When I was a kid, I loved tennis. Inspired by the Center Court magic at Wimbledon, I’d gather a bucket of balls, ride my bike to the park, and hit hundreds of serves. Flat. Slice. American Twist. To win, how one opens a point is critical. On the grass at the All-England Club in the 80s and 90s, it mattered even more. Big serve. Ace. Big serve. Volley winner. Instead of the baseline wars of today where Novak outlasts the rest, the tournament was filled with gunslingers. Sampras. Becker. Rafter. Ivanisevic. Edberg. Krajicek.

With the wool and nylon felt and slick grass of the era, the French Open Champion rarely escaped the second round of the grass surface. These players excelled on the dirt. Kick serves. Long rallies. A game of fitness. Outside of Andre Agassi, only three French Open Champions reached the Wimby Quarters at any point during the decade.

And so, the player makeup of the tournament differed wildly. Thomas Muster, who won the 1995 French Open, didn’t play at Wimbledon that same year. He only played seventeen matches on grass over the course of his career. It was that type of era. Baseline bruiser verse serve and volleyer. Specialization ruled.

As the contrasting tournaments landed within a month of the other, tennis-filled television coverage, I watched as many matches as I could. And I tried to learn a bit from both play styles. Growing up, I lived in a part of the country where private instruction and lessons were scarce. And few kids owned a racquet, preferring a leather glove instead. So, based on what I learned on the tube, I developed a hard flat serve, one-handed backhand, and western grip to complement my whiplash-style forehand. And I could volley, cherishing the mantra to never stop moving forward.

My style became an oddity of sorts. Outside of watching television and recording matches with a trusty and worn-out VHS tape, I also checked out any book I could get my hands on. Libraries and bookstores offered numerous how-to tomes on grips and styles. But there is one classic that is undergoing a certain renaissance of late on self-help forums and social media feeds—“The Inner Game of Tennis” written by W. Timothy Gallwey and first published in 1974. Good books never leave us; we just need to be reminded about their existence.

If you haven’t read the revered classic in sports psychology, it explores the mental and emotional aspects of tennis and asserts the key to improving one’s performance lies in the mastery of the inner game, overcoming self-doubt and other distractions. I loved the visualization techniques outlined. See the perfect serve. Hit the perfect serve. Gallwey used examples from tennis to illustrate his points, but the principles he outlined can be applied to any activity or sport. Spin-offs abound. The Inner Game of Golf, Sales, Cooking, Baseball, etc., followed in its footsteps.

A Self-Help Fictional Tennis Book

So, when I heard Reid wrote the book “Carrie Soto is Back,” I leaped. How could I resist a tennis book set in the 90s with hints of coaching in the style of Gallwey’s book? I won’t spoil the plot outside of what’s on the cover, not too much anyway, but the story centers around a fictional 20-time grand slam winner with a brutal reputation on the tour. She played to win, no matter what, and retired after injuring herself on the court. But when a prodigy shatters her record, she fearlessly comes out of retirement and vows to gain it back. Imagine Serena Williams surpassing Margaret Court’s all-time record, only for an ambitious newcomer to seize it from her years later, prompting the war horse to reenter the fray and fight for her legacy.

Throughout the book, our fictional Serena, Carrie Soto, rediscovers her love for the game, reunites with her dad, and confronts her own limitations. For me, this book encapsulates the essence of the sport. Old-style play. Throw-back players. At a press conference, the hero of our tale laughs when another player calls her old and says, “I’m gonna crush her and anyone else I play on my way to the final. I am going to hold their beating hearts in my hand.” While on a plane, I might have cheered out loud reading these lines. But hey, I slightly miss the era when John McEnroe made the ball kid cry. Well, that’s over the top, but you get the point. Give the man credit; he plays to win, even on the Senior tour. Pickleball matches too.

Again, I won’t spoil the ending, but I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as “Daisy Jones & The Six,” but it’s fitting, I suppose. Not the ending I wanted, but the one written. I hate when the characters win.

For me, the ending isn’t the point. The work peaks in one of the matches on the legendary grass court when Carrie takes her game to an unheard-of level.

The Next

Going back to my own wonky style, I used to hit an extreme top-spin forehand. Not to go too wonky on those with only a passing interest in the game but the grip on the racquet matters. Because the game moves so fast, McEnroe played with a center grip, which meant he didn’t have to shift from forehand to backhand. Hold your wizard’s wand one way for the entire match. As my forehand was so extreme, I could do the same with my one-handed backhand and whipping forehand by flipping the racquet on the turn. But my swing has this weakness where I wait for the ball to dip ever so slightly. If you watch old French Open matches, the dirt ballers backpedal to hit it this way. That’s why Agassi was special; he had this knack for taking the ball on the rise. The timing is so hard, in some cases impossible, but he could cut off the ball like no player before him. Often, players of today emulate his style. I’m oversimplifying the when and how, but Novak does this better than anyone. He creates angles when they shouldn’t exist.

And so, I’d often see the ball, move into position for that ever so slight dip (sometimes even moving backward), and then pull the trigger. But what if you changed your mindset?

See, instead of playing the court or the ball or the opponent, I’m playing to my swing. It’s all about me. But the magic is seeing the three boxes on the other side of the net and adjusting to what the game gives you. Not playing to your strength, necessarily, but working in a slice, half-volley, or whatever creativity comes to mind or derives from the muse. Or tennis gods.

Don’t wait. Visualize. Act. And this makes the game more fun. Pure joy. At times, you’ll see a player show up in this zone during important matches. Federer, in particular, whenever he played Andy Roddick. Nadal at the French Open, no matter who he plays. Navratilova closing in at the net on grass, both in singles and doubles. Serena serving in the clutch, choose your tournament. Conners playing during the wee hours of the morning at the US Open, think 1991 behind two sets.

Ah, the nostalgia. I do love this book. And, of course, the memories and craft it somehow conjures.


  • Taylor Jenkins Reid has as built a connected universe of characters, this work has a tie-in to her book, Malibu Rising.
  • Note, the picture of this post is the book behind a tennis racquet. In this case, I used a Wilson ProStaff Classic. I felt this was fitting considering the book.
  • Before the final started, Nadal already won.
  • Federer overhead against Roddick.
  • Grasscourt Queen.
  • Serena in the clutch, the data tells the tale.