John McEnroe plus Anyone

Edward Said

  • The Right Set: The Faber Book of Tennis edited by Caryl Phillips
    Faber, 327 pp, £12.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 571 19540 7

Of the several sports that have turned almost completely professional during the past three decades, tennis deserves a place of honour in what Christopher Lasch called the culture of narcissism. A sport of skilful, well-mannered ladies and gentlemen has metamorphosed into a brutal confrontation between unpleasant, physically overdeveloped and remorselessly single-minded hitters, which is controlled by agents, TV networks, tournament bosses, sports equipment conglomerates, automobile and, until recently, cigarette companies. At the same time, an ever-increasing number of former non-tennis countries, besides having the de rigueur national airline and lavish arms procurement agencies, today put on at least one international tournament a year. There are now Qatar and Dubai Opens, to say nothing of counterparts in Tashkent and Conakry. So along with the Grand Slam Big Four (Wimbledon, Sydney, Paris, New York) and the national tournaments, a complex web of satellite tournaments keeps the sizable corps of men and women pros, plus – in the case of top players – retinues that include trainer, coach, psychologist, lover and bodyguard, in business for 52 money-earning weeks a year.

No wonder, then, that as a spectator sport tennis has become such a big and well-managed business that a broad gulf now exists between the thinning ranks of weekend amateurs and the growing number of playing pros. You used to feel that the difference between yourself and a superb player like Budge Patty was a matter of degree. He was more consistent, hit harder, looked better, and was a keener competitor, but you and he inhabited the same universe. True, he owned several more rackets and practised more regularly than you, but he and others like him, drank, ate, smoked, even held a job much as you did. He was certainly a better, more stylish player than you, but there was a discernible continuum between what he and you did: if you worked harder, lost (or maybe gained) a pound or two, concentrated more on your forehand swing, you could (but of course never did) play with him and not totally disgrace yourself. Now try to imagine yourself today as you were in your twenties, facing Sampras or Philippoussis or Ivanisevic, or even Navratilova, Hingis or Venus Williams: can’t be done, no way at all even of being on the same court, much less hitting their balls back. Two decades ago, wooden rackets were replaced by high-tech instruments engineered to the utmost in hitting efficiency, and daily restrung, for ever more demanding players whose main concern is blinding power and speed, in pursuit of which they are liable to use a different racket for each game. The fierce training and dietary schedules have become so demanding, the strokes and serves so laden with topspin, whirring bounces and inconceivable angles as to make any kind of match between past and present unthinkable.

I’ve been involved with tennis for well over fifty years now, and am feeling glummer and more dissatisfied with the sport than ever. I experienced some of the changes through my son Wadie, who became infatuated with the game when he was four or five. He was just getting started as a competitive player in his early teens when he smashed his right elbow doing a bicycle stunt; although it was rebuilt, it never stopped bothering him. Eight years later, his doctor found that the two pins he had inserted were encrusted with tissue; he fatalistically left them in place, and they became a permanent tennis handicap. Still, Wadie managed to become an excellent competitive player, taking part in European junior tournaments, playing for his university team, working as a coach-instructor at resorts and tennis camps. At six foot three, with unusually long arms and legs and a wiry muscular body, he was transmuted into an intimidating modern player at the age of 14: I was never able to get more than a game or two per set from him after that because the difference between us – I have played decently all my life, the kind of game which with some irony he calls ‘classic’ – was so stark.

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