By ascribing genius to individual players, we make tennis less accessible

The notion of the tennis “genius” shows we think greatness is something elusive, individualistic, and male. 

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There is something about Wimbledon that feels different from other major sporting events. Perhaps it’s the brevity of the tournament, seemingly over when it’s barely begun; the Henman Hill picnics of Pimms and strawberries; the dress code – compulsory all white for the players, neat and preppy for spectators.

Or perhaps it’s the quiet. Rallies are punctuated with “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd, and occasionally the umpire interjects particularly encouraging cheers with a bored “thank you”. But most of the time during play, the matches have thousands of people in rapture, holding their breath for the next point, listening to the pre-serve silence punctuated by the bounce of the ball.

Wimbledon exacerbates this with its somewhat stuffy rulebook, but the silence is representative of a solemn respect held more generally for tennis. It is a sport engulfed in reverie. Players are frequently heralded as “greats”: according to Matthew Syed in the Times, Novac Djokovic’s recent Wimbledon triumph has taken “another step farther into the terrain of greatness”; in a Shortlist headline, Andy Murray is “a genuine great”; in a piece for the London Review of Books, Edward Said refers to “the psychology of the great player”.

But what does “great” actually mean? It confers a sense that good tennis players are creative, calculating and clever, perhaps more than other sportspeople. Greatness appears to amount to more than the sum of its parts. Allusions to its ineffability abound in commentary – “The brilliance of Novak Djokovic can be hard to unpick,” writes Charlie Eccleshare in the Telegraph in January 2019.

The notion of “genius” is equally common and its definition similarly woolly. Darren Kane claims in a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald that “Roger Federer is a genius, and Rafael Nadal a mere champion”, but he cannot fully explain why. He states that “champions can fill trophy cabinets without ever traversing into the stratosphere of genius,” but his subsequent definition is vague: ““Genius” denotes that rare kind of champion – the type who mesmerises; who triumphs in a special way… A genius is a champion who astonishes in a complex, sometimes inexplicable fashion.”

Similarly, in a 2006 essay, the writer David Foster Wallace spends a paragraph describing Federer’s formidable technique, and then undermines himself: “…yet none of [this] really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.”

Indeed, this notion of a tennis genius is most pronounced in writing about Federer. The player’s genius, unlike that of his rivals, is never really doubted. He is “the Swiss maestro”, or merely “the Swiss” – euphemisms that jar with otherwise straightforward sports reporting. Federer’s mysterious “genius” is left unquestioned and actively championed. Foster Wallace describes Federer’s game as “like something out of “The Matrix””, his forehand “a great liquid whip”.

Federer is undoubtedly a fascinating figure. He’s won more Grand Slam titles than any male player in history, and, at the age of 37 – positively ancient by sporting standards – will probably win more. His technical and athletic prowess is enviable, and he seems to barely break a sweat over the course of a five-set match. But there is no apparent reason his talent should be more intriguing than that of another supremely talented sportsperson.

It’s difficult for anyone to simply win a men’s singles tennis match. Victories are justified by outstanding mental stamina, players ranked on scales of greatness. It is so closely analysed and dissected that engaging with it becomes an intellectual exercise. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: tennis is an undeniably complex and strategic game. And while athleticism and technique are prerequisites of excelling (Foster Wallace notes that over the two decades preceding his piece, professional tennis has been “transformed from a game of quickness and finesse into one of athleticism and brute power”), a multitude of books have been written on the mastery of the sport’s mental strategy.

The intellectualising discourse around tennis inevitably (and perhaps deliberately) affects public perception of the sport. Shrouding players in an intellectual mystique makes the game less accessible and reinforces the idea that tennis is the preserve of the educated middle class.

Class fractures play out clearly in sport. In 2014, an Ofsted report revealed that 61 per cent of English Premiership rugby union players were educated at independent schools. In cricket, 43 per cent of players who have played for England in the past year were privately educated. Meanwhile, private schooling is the privilege of just 7 per cent of children in the UK as a whole.

Tennis, too, is often reserved for the privileged, with fees for elite training academies – such as Nadal’s eponymous tennis academy in Malloca, which he founded in 2016, reaching into the tens of thousands. Viewing sport through a vaunted intellectual lens may well impair accessibility. Portraying tennis as complex and opaque throws up yet another barrier to potential participants – or fans – who already face financial hurdles.

Yet the liberal usage of intellectual epithets is not solely the reserve of traditionally middle-class or private-school sports. Lionel Messi is the Federer of football; Sky Sports hails his “vision and creativity”, the Mirror applauds his “remarkable presence of mind”; the New York Times describes him as “a genius that defies belief”. In 2009 it was reported – and celebrated by Chelsea fans – that Frank Lampard returned an IQ score over 150, putting him in the most intelligent 0.1 per cent of the population (incidentally, Lampard is one of relatively few professional footballers who attended a fee-paying school).

Though this language is present in football writing, it is less pronounced, and less ubiquitous. Moreover this trope is amplified in tennis commentary because of the sport’s solitary nature – psychologising prose is attached more easily to individual players than collective teams. The nineteenth century notion of the creative genius, whose work is expressive of character, is still deeply engrained in our culture. It is more difficult to project this onto a footballer as part of a team than a tennis player who is alone on the court for hours, displaying qualities like high stamina and focus that we deem noble and heroic.

Again, perhaps there’s nothing inherently problematic with celebrating admirable qualities in prominent figures. Yet – perhaps more tellingly – the sporting figures that the media reveres are almost always men.  Serena Williams has won 23 grand slam titles – three more than Federer, and the second-most of any woman in history. A cursory Google search of “Federer genius” pulls up hundreds of articles with these words in the headline. Meanwhile “Serena Williams genius” yields barely any of a similar ilk: the first result is Derek Pope’s song “Serena Williams”, listed on the lyrics website Genius.com. When it’s not fixated on her outfits, commentary surrounding Williams tends to focus on her oh-so-surprising athleticism, with little mention of her creative or mental brilliance.

Of course, we should be writing about sport thoughtfully and analytically. It can be a beautiful, intricate expression of humanness that is exciting, stimulating and interesting to read about. But the way we write about tennis speaks volumes. It shows how much we still subscribe to traditional and slippery ideas of greatness: as something individualistic, male, and somehow impenetrable. And it also demonstrates an urge to justify what we enjoy even when we admit we cannot find the words. I love a Federer match as much as anyone – but is that because he’s a genius? Should Nadal, who holds 18 Grand Slam titles, really be dubbed “a mere champion” because his game is ostensibly more physical than mental? If tennis genius is so elusive and ineffable, could we sometimes just sit back and enjoy the rally?

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.