Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Wimbledon | Love, serve, fault

A sport that has terms like “love", “serve" and “fault" inscribed into its vocabulary is likely to have some profound things to say about the human condition.

Tennis is, if not as old as the hills, quite ancient. In his magisterial survey, Tennis: A Cultural History (1998), Heiner Gillmeister traces it back to the 13th century, when tennis, or what seemed to be a medieval version of the game we now know, was likened to a “devilish pastime". To cut a long, though rather fascinating, story short, one of the earliest depictions of the sport, in a tract by a Bernardine monk, is of two teams of demons hitting the soul of a poor idiot back and forth, “after the fashion of the game at ball", in the cavernous depths of hell.

Far less gregarious than cricket and football, tennis, like boxing, is a largely solitary and inward-looking pursuit, turning our thoughts to matters that are not exclusively related to the rules of the game. Tennis demands of its spectators, as of its players, the kind of deep commitment that cats expect of their owners—a close attention to detail, watchful concentration, and a near-mystical absorption in its cadences. The pleasure it yields is usually far more intense, lasting, and if I may venture, more life-changing than the fleeting adrenalin rush of other team sports.

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John Laverty’s painting, ‘The Tennis Party’ (1885), is displayed in the City of Aberdeen Art Gallery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In his immortal tribute to Federer, David Foster Wallace compared the effect of watching the Swiss at play to a religious experience. In 2010, Matt Harvey, the first official Championship Poet at Wimbledon, wrote a poem called Thwok! which began:

“Bounce bounce bounce bounce/ thwackety wackety zingety ping/ hittety backety pingety zang/ wack, thwok, thwack, pok."

In the same year, after almost an 11-hour-long marathon between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in Wimbledon, Xan Brooks of The Guardian wondered “if an angel will come and set them free".

“Is this too much to ask?" Brooks wrote. “Just one slender angel, with white wings and a wise smile, to tell them that it’s all right, they have suffered enough and that they are now being recalled. The angel could hug them and kiss their brows and invite them to lay their rackets gently on the grass. And then they could all ascend to heaven together."

Tennis is also notorious for inspiring less than celestial thoughts. The spectacular appeal of what is already a highly stylized and sophisticated sport is enhanced by the sartorial adventures of the players and the unceasing obsession of fans with necklines, skirt-lengths, hairdos and tattoos (apocrypha has it that a female player caused a sensation among the crowd in Wimbledon in 1905 by daring to roll up her sleeves). Beyond the professional circuit, tennis is encoded with erotic, amorous and even sinister meanings, becoming, as all great sports do, a metaphor for things other than sports.

In Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Tom Stoppard’s modern take on Hamlet, the two central characters play a word game loosely based on tennis scoring, bandying questions and answers back and forth. The game requires fresh questions only: no statements; no repetition. In Lars Gustafsson’s The Tennis Players (1974), a visiting professor of Swedish literature, who closely resembles the author, at the University of Texas, US, is busy teaching a course in 19th century European thought and mastering the game of tennis—for him both are equally nerdy activities. In Michael Mewshaw’s speculative fiction, Blackballed (1986), an African is imagined as competing against John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors in the 1980s.

In William Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Dauphin, who is the heir apparent to the throne of France, sends the eponymous king of the play the gift of tennis balls, mocking Henry’s callow youth, full of fun and games. “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls," laments a character in The Duchess of Malfi, a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster, “struck and bandied which way please them."

“My hand the racket, he the tennis ball," says the diabolical Piers Gaveston, referring to his sexual power on king Edward II in Christopher Marlowe’s play on the monarch’s rise and fall.

Among modern instances of tennis love, Humbert Humbert, the creepy narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), who is obsessed with “nymphets", watches his step-daughter, the glorious 12-year-old Dolores Haze (or Lolita, as he lovingly calls her), prancing around a tennis court. It has a giddying effect: “Her tennis was the highest point to which I can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make-believe, although I daresay, for her it was the geometry of basic reality."

George, in Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man (1964), can’t stop his queer eye from wandering as he walks by the tennis courts of his university campus with young Kenny, his delectable student: “The courts are all in use now, dotted with moving figures. But George, with the lizard-quick glance of a veteran addict, has already noted that…none of these players are physically attractive. On the nearest court, a fat, middle-aged faculty member is playing to work up a sweat, against a girl with hair on her legs".

Tennis also moves beyond aesthetic elegance and into the murky depths of love. In E.M. Foster’s A Room With a View (1908), Lucy Honeychurch, confused but as robust as Jane Austen’s Emma, breaks off her engagement with Cecil Vyse after he declines to play tennis with her—not once but twice. Happier fortunes are recorded by Sir John Betjeman in his ode to his muse, Joan Hunter Dunn (“my shock-headed victor"), who he fell in love with when he had already been married for seven years.

“Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,/The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy," rhapsodized Betjeman in A Subaltern’s Love Song. “With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,/ I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn."

If tennis has set a few hearts aflutter, it has also probably wrecked as many, and even led to memorable instances of spousal killing. The story of Alfred Hitchcock’s now classic mystery, Dial M for Murder (1954), revolves around tennis, though the game doesn’t figure explicitly in the plot. Tony Wendice, a professional tennis player, is forced by his wealthy wife Margot to give up his career and devote more time to their marriage. Bereft of the sport he dearly loved, Tony hatches a plot to have his wife murdered. His decision is hastened by the discovery of her unfaithfulness.

In Strangers on a Train, which Hitchcock made three years before Dial M, another tennis pro, Guy Haines, also conspires to have his wife killed, though unwittingly. In what must be one of the most chilling scenes in the history of cinema, every head in a crowd watching a tennis match moves from left to right following the ball—except for one, that of the psychopath, which stays still, staring straight at Haines.

But in the annals of tennis terror, few incidents come close to the circumstances in which James I of Scotland was assassinated in 1437. Gillmeister reports that the king, according to the chronicles of John Shirley, had jumped into a “privy" (the 15th century equivalent of a commode) to escape his killers, only to realize that the aperture used to clean it—through which he could have fled—had been closed up a few days ago on his instructions. The reason behind this move was to prevent the royal tennis balls from rolling into the filthy pit, which lay right next to the king’s precious tennis arena.

Gillmeister also mentions the medieval writer Christine de Pisan’s prissy recommendation of a game of tennis as a good way of keeping the body in shape, as long as one doesn’t exert oneself overmuch. In a mystery play from the Middle Ages, one of the three visitors brings the gift of a ball for baby Jesus to go play tennis—the ancients clearly had their priorities sorted out.

Whether you prefer the cuter version of the game (with lots of dropshots and getting everything back) or you like it rough (serve hard and come right in behind it to the net), there is something both brutal and delicate about tennis.

That’s pretty much how life treats us: thwacking and whacking us every now and then, before letting us bounce back into action.

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