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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times