John McEnroe plus Anyone
- 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.
Vol. 21 No. 14 · 15 July 1999
Edward Said is sure that tennis is in decline (LRB, 1 July) but I cannot agree that – in Britain at least – commercialism is ruining the sport. The obnoxious and sexist Tim Henman reminds us that whatever the problems with footballers or cricketers, people without a well-to-do background can get to the top in these sports. Commercialism has ended the amateur attitudes which pervaded most British sports. Tennis, and to an extent golf, remain exceptions.
Vol. 21 No. 15 · 29 July 1999
In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said barely mentions sport. In his review of a book on sport (LRB, 1 July) he barely mentions imperialism. Not much chance, then, of him becoming the C.L.R. James of tennis.
I have been an uncomplaining reader of the LRB since its kangaroo-pouch beginnings and cannot recall ever seeing an essay on literature by Rod Laver, though presumably he knows how to read and write. Edward Said's parade of Names of Tennis Players I Remember and Caryl Phillips Forgot (if he ever knew them), right down to Don Candy, who enjoyed a reputation in the beer garden of Candy's Wellington Square Hotel and even before that among the wits of Colonel Light Gardens where we grew up, as a kind of prototype Sheridan Bucket of lawn tennis, is a donkey-drop game. The professor may be forgiven mis-hits like the omission of Ken McGregor (Candy's South Australian contemporary and superior) but not his failure to mention the greatest unorthodox individualist in the game during the period spanned by his unreliable memoir. Pancho Segura, if not the inventor of the double-handed forehand, was certainly its most dangerous exponent. Omitting to mention him is the equivalent of writing about literature and imperialism without noticing Conrad. Segura was the great eccentric stylist of tennis, not just for his unorthodox forehand but also for his feline anticipation, belied by a pigeon-toed shuffle around the court, and a preternatural reaction speed which enabled him to take an opponent's smash on the volley and return it double-handed like a shot off a shovel. He was, admittedly, an early member of the professional circus when that is exactly what it was, but his performance on the court was an inspiring counter-example to the orthodoxies of Jack Kramer, who rigidly believed there was only one way – his – to hold a racquet.
Bruce Clunies Ross
Edward Said claims to have been involved with tennis for well over fifty years. Perhaps he has been brained at the net a few too many times, otherwise he would not have made the unforgivable mistake of not knowing the four Grand Slam venues. Having attended nine of the past ten Australian Opens, I can vouch for the fact that the event is held in Melbourne.
Vol. 21 No. 16 · 19 August 1999
Edward Said (LRB, 1 July) is entirely justified in complaining about the unbridgeable gulf that now exists between even a decent amateur player and a professional, a gulf which, although it certainly existed back in faux-amateur days, could at least be stared across and once in a while, for a couple of hours, jumped over. In some inexact year of the early Twenties, before my time though not much before, the British Davis Cup team was barnstorming in Ontario and stopped for a match in Woodstock, where one of its players fell ill and a call went out for any local who might replace him in one of the two singles matches. My father, a fine athlete and pretty good tennis player, not long back from the war, was nominated. He knew he was outgunned and decided – what the heck – to hit every ball as hard as he could and to go for every line. He won the match. Of course the two teams were not the world's best; of course it was not a famous stage, but still: nobody in the same position would today ever come close to Henman, to Rusedski, or to tour players a thousand places below those two.
Vol. 21 No. 17 · 2 September 1999
I’m not so sure about the ‘unbridgeable gulf’ between amateur and professional tennis players proposed by Edward Said and endorsed by Don Coles (Letters, 19 August). The amateur game has improved by leaps and bounds, just as the professional one has. Walk around any tennis complex and watch the teens and twenties blasting hell out of the ball, hitting lines and corners, volleying brilliantly, returning the unreturnable. The best of them would give any middle-order pro a good game. Beamed back into the past, I suspect that the ferocity of their strokes would astound anyone between Tilden and Santana – though it’s always tricky putting one era up against another. All they lack is consistency and the desire to empty their lives of everything but tennis. The great consolation for amateurs, if consolation is needed, is that their game breeds enjoyment as naturally as it breeds curses and errors. (I await the space-age racquet that can be hurled at walls while retaining all its magic properties.) What we live for is the once-in-a-season moment of perfection, the topspin backhand that comes off, the perfect lob-volley, the forehand down the line. What professionals live for is points, money, sponsors, sore shoulders, thrashed tendons, glamorous girlfriends and the sickness unto early retirement, from which many of them never recover.
Edward Said’s mention of Budge Patty dates both him and me. I met Patty in the winter of 1960 when we were both members of the Tennis Club of Paris. My one lasting memory of him was when he lost to the Dane Kurt Nielsen in that winter’s indoor championships, which were played at our club. He came to our contiguous lockers and said: ‘I hate it! I hate it!’ I suppose he meant that he hated to lose.
Has anyone else noticed that most good tennis players (professional and weekend) are pigeon-toed?