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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.

Poland's Kamil Majchrzak serves against US player Noah Rubin at Wimbledon 2014. Photo: Getty
Poland's Kamil Majchrzak serves against US player Noah Rubin at Wimbledon 2014. Photo: Getty

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)