Poland's Kamil Majchrzak serves against US player Noah Rubin at Wimbledon 2014. Photo: Getty
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Ballet on Centre Court: how modern tennis fuses strength and grace

Tennis has not become ugly. It has got more beautiful. Professionalisation did not ruin its balletic strand; it deepened it. The ultimate athletes turned out to be lighter, leaner and more mobile.

Love Game
Elizabeth Wilson
Serpent's Tail, 320pp, £15.99

“Golden ageism” is as old as sport. Just after the first spear was hurled on the savannah, the phrase was heard, “The game’s going to the dogs.” My own sport, cricket, has always nurtured nostalgia alongside contempt for the present. The game is “in the direst peril”, cricket’s bible, Wisden, once complained. “During all the years that I have edited Wisden,” an editor lamented on another occasion, “there has never been a season so disheartening.” The seasons in question? Those of 1900 and 1921.

Tennis also suffers from nostalgia, though the exact nature of the golden age is hard to  pinpoint. Some look back to the amateur era, when players prized sprezzatura above vulgar victory. Others regret the decline of “character” (translation: swearing, gamesmanship, gracelessness, vulgarity), especially as seen in the 1970s super-brat.

Love Game, by the novelist and cultural historian Elizabeth Wilson, is too intelligent and idiosyncratic to fall for such common arguments. Nonetheless, a resistance to the modern game underpins her book. It is, in effect, two works fused together. The bulk of the book is a detailed social history – from the hedonism of tennis on the Riviera in the 1920s to the slickly marketed game of today – often explored through the prism of gender, sexuality and class.

The book’s second strand, filleted into the social history, is a compelling but eccentric essay about the nature of the game. Wilson thinks tennis has been misappropriated, even betrayed. She admires the spirit of late-Victorian tennis, defined in opposition to the muscular straightness and empire-building machismo of Tom Brown. Wilson sees tennis as more playful, closer to dance than to “conventional” sports.

Her love of the sport warms the text. She has not, however, discovered a structure that would allow her polemical essay to drive the whole historical narrative. Wilson is also very generous in her attribution of quotation – too much so. Some humdrum passages of journalism are quoted at length, scaffolding for ideas that could have stood on their own.

The central theme – the relationship between sport and the arts and the place of art within sport – comes to the fore two-thirds into the book. “Whereas when Nureyev danced,” Wilson argues, “he had a free field on which to display his virtuosity and the beauty of his art, the tennis player was condemned to force his brilliance against an opponent.” Leaving aside that Nureyev was also “condemned” to follow the steps written for him by choreographers, it is hard to see how Roger Federer – whose game is so full of self-expression and surprise – is imprisoned at all, least of all by the structure of his professional life.

Wilson argues that the evolution of modern tennis has destroyed its unique position as a game apart. “The sporting world,” she writes, “could surely have managed not to have a nervous breakdown if a single sport had been allowed to follow its own beau­tiful and eccentric path untrammelled by the totalitarian imperatives of conventional sporting culture.” Wilson writes as though “sport” were one body, with a single controlling conscious brain.

Let’s leave aside volition and focus on aesthetics. Tennis has not become ugly. It has got more beautiful. Professionalisation did not ruin its balletic strand; it deepened it. In tennis, as with football, the ultimate athletes turned out to be lighter, leaner and more mobile. Watching Federer and Djokovic – or Iniesta and Messi – is to observe human beings at the peak of balletic grace.

The beauty of tennis, though lavish, is accidental. It has grown organically from players trying to win. Those hauling bulk around the court proved no match for an ultra-light, sinewy super-athlete who could hit an outright winner while sprinting at top speed. Movement, not just power, emerged as the central professional advantage. The ballet dancers won.

Not every sport was so lucky. In contact sports such as rugby union, professionalism allowed gym-built strength to bully intuitive flair. French back play, once a wonder of the sporting world, is now depressingly brutal and unimaginative.

Tennis, in contrast, has fused strength and grace. Wilson does not allow for any of this. She is always kinder to heroes of old, explaining away John McEnroe’s tantrums as artistic angst, the howls of a tortured genius more obsessed with playing perfectly than winning. Novak Djokovic, however, she dismisses as a stooge of big business – “the perfect player of corporate tennis: tennis without controversy, predictable, repeatable, quantitative, metronome tennis”.

Is this the same Djokovic I’ve been watching? Yes, the Serb’s technique is enviably smooth and free from glitches. But the Djokovic I know is a volcanic and expressive pugilist – the eyes roll, the shoulders shrug, the heavens are questioned and, finally, the comeback begins. He can overcome any deficit, with a relish for confrontation that is both scary and irresistible. Part cage fighter, part Zen master, Djokovic has channelled the wild strands of his personality without losing them altogether. He is authentic and yet controlled – just as an artist hopes to be. Crucially, where McEnroe’s behaviour declined with age, Djokovic’s has improved. Tennis’s new culture has helped. The exceptional sportsmanship of Federer and Nadal gave their rivals no option: follow suit or look terrible in contrast.

When I look at the ascent of men’s tennis, far from wondering where it all went wrong, I feel only a debt of thanks. My fear is much simpler than Wilson’s. If it turns out that drugs are indeed widespread in elite tennis, I will feel robbed of some of the richest experiences of my life.

Ed Smith played cricket for Kent, Middlesex and England. His latest book, “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune”, is published by Bloomsbury (£8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

There will be a by-election in the new mayor's south London seat.

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

It's also worth noting that, as my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in March, George Galloway plans to stand as well.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.