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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.