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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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