Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This is a blog post about tennis. Please bear with me on the somewhat circuitous path leading to it.

The aristocratic German nymphomaniac, Countess Franaziska von Reventlow, has in her charming memoirs a chapter entitled “The Era of Pauls.” (It sounds better in German, “Das Zeitalter der Paule”—kindly excuse the computer’s lamentable lack of umlauts.) In the early twentieth century, Schwabing, the bohemian suburb of Munich, was the German equivalent of swinging Paris and Vienna, and the Countess made full use of it, notably during one phase when all her lovers were named Paul.

I have never had simultaneous namesakes in my romantic life, but, distributed over a good many years, Patricias have been of importance to me. Before the definitive, supreme Patricia—my amazing, beloved wife—there was the film and TV professor Patricia Mellencamp, and, still earlier, the radio interviewer Patricia Marx (now Ellsberg), with whom I traveled through Europe.

In those days, I was better known as a film critic, and in Stockholm we socialized with, among others, the distinguished film director Bo Widerberg, best known hereabouts for Elvira Madigan, a fine film but not, in my view, his best. Bo invited Patricia and me to his studio, where he regaled us with bits of his forthcoming feature on the Movieola. While we were watching, he was summoned to the telephone, and, in the cat’s absence, the mice had fun.

So after some fooling around, Pat smuggled in a text reading Klippning (editing) by Patricia Marx och (and) John Simon, which amused the returning Widerberg no end. He also invited us to the premiere of his new documentary, The White Sport, for good or bad never released in this country to my knowledge.

Why “the white sport”? Well, aesthetically, because in those days tennis was played, exclusively and blessedly, only in white; but also, socially, because, exclusively and unjustly, only persons of white skin were able to participate. So the politically liberal Widerberg used the documentary not only as a tribute to the beauties of tennis, but also as a passionate denunciation of its racism. I don’t know what The White Sport did for my politics (if, indeed, I have any), but it certainly turned me into an ardent tennis fan. So here we are at my present topic.

I am only a selective sports fan, and then chiefly if the sport is televised. I do watch the Olympics, both the summer and winter variety, major figure skating events, and soccer when it is World Cup time. But tennis is my true love, albeit only at grand slam time on TV. Right now I am gearing up for serious Wimbledon watching. (Need I tell you how upset I get when bunglers pronounce it as “Wimbleton”?)

Stimulating as the three esses—soccer, skating and skiing—can be, tennis is the only truly beautiful sport that also requires brainwork. Beautiful even nowadays, when tennis dress evokes the Mardi Gras or  trunk dress-up parties. Well, perhaps a little humor is welcome; even the ancient Greeks had, along with their dramas, satir plays. Though happily no longer played in long pants by the men,  tennis still, to my eyes, looks best in white, maybe with a touch of added color as in, for instance, Novak Djokovic’s shirts.

The aesthetics of tennis, however, are much more than dress deep. Still, clothes, though they do not make the man and woman in tennis, are a part of the show.  Thus the barnstorming gladrags of the Williams sisters do not enhance their appearance, but the stylish outfits of tall and comely Maria Sharapova contribute to her appeal. Maria does, nevertheless, present a problem.

It all began with Monika Seles, who seems to have invented the grunt. A totally unnecessary and unbecoming feature of the game of many female and even some male players, it may help them release energy, or so at least they believe. Still, quite a few top players are perfectly able to dispense with this often earsplitting and tasteless addendum. Perhaps the worst offender in this respect is Francesca Schiavone, although she would be unappealing enough even without it.  Tennis, to be sure, is not meant to be a beauty pageant, but good looks, in men as well as women players, do not hurt, especially when you consider that far too many tennis women look like unsightly men in drag.

Martina Hingis used to be the one to watch, not only for physical beauty but also for elegance of play. These days there is rather too much hitting the ball hard from the baseline, and not enough stylish finesse. Of course the truly great players, male or female, combine powerful baseline drive with comeliness of movement and subtle placement of the ball. Still, such stylish play as, for example, serve and volley, is comparatively rare nowadays, although chip and charge, its somewhat poorer cousin, persists. Luckily, there are a few all-round players who can do everything and then some.

Here I instance Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at their best, who amaze us with, among other things, their  spectacular defensive play, the ability not only to return seemingly unreturnable shots but even score winners off them. Yet there is something beyond either great defensive or attacking play, beyond tactics and strategy, something I would call natural grace.

Roger’s movements are nearly balletic, and I am not referring to acrobatics such as hitting a ball between the legs with back to the net, and even winning a point with it. I mean sheer beauty: litheness, easefulness, elasticity, poise—well, yes, grace. Djokovic, a witty Serb, has this too in his—dare I say it?—a somehow witty way; rubbery, perhaps, rather than silken. There is something wonderfully tongue-in-cheek about the way he goes successfully after an apparently unreturnable shot. Or the way he mounts a sequence of shots like repartee from a great comic actor.

But then there is Rafael Nadal,  He, too, has an all-around game. He can return serve like a brick wall, retrieve fantastic shots like a golden retriever, place winners into corners or on the lines, serve aces as almost any of the major servers champion, and  has been for some time number one in the world. Yet I have scant use for this Spaniard. On the court at least he is without charm, though off court, I gather, he can be quite appealing. His playing, however, is robotic, charmless, humorless, hard-bitten, almost bestial.

Among the women, there are quite a few highly competent players, but not, as of now, charmers among the winners.  Ana Ivanovic had the lovable winner quality for a moment, then promptly lost it. Sharapova is too haughty. For Wozniacki, Clijsters, and Kuznetsova, epithets must be drawn from the tubbier reaches of the animal kingdom; the pleasanter-looking Dementieva and even Bartoli, are unfortunately too unreliable players.

Most attractive and promising these days is the lovely German, Julia Goerges, now ranked sixteenth or seventeenth, but who, I hope, is climbing higher. She has already beaten all the graceless dynamos at least once or twice, and her blog postings, especially in German, are perfectly charming. I am rooting for her to make it to the top, although she may be just a bit too delicately feminine to steadily overpower the cows.

At any rate, tennis is no longer the racially white sport. We have Monfils and Tsonga among the men, and , of course, the Williams sisters, great, charmless power hitters, sort of female Nadals. Althea Gibson was a far more appealing player, as were Chandra Rubin, Zina Garrison and, somewhat differently, Yvonne Goolagong.. Among men, Arthur Ashe was a prince, with and without a racket.

Elegance, ultimately, is what I look for, and wearing white, for me, contributes to it. The only time I published anything about tennis was a profile of Mary Pierce for Vogue.  I yearned to do Hingis, but, alas, John Heilpern had beaten me to it. So I was given Pierce, a good player, but an erratic and, I am afraid, uncharismatic one. I found her French mother rather more interesting. But, at any rate, Pierce favored white; my profile began with “White is Mary Pierce’s favorite color,” a sentence Pierce found to her liking.

There is no getting around it: tennis is the most elegant sport, with the possible exception of fencing, which I took up during my Harvard days, only to have it be discontinued for austerity reasons during World War Two.  Figure skating, though lovely, lacks the head-to-head competitiveness, what with winners determined by several often chauvinist judges and questionable scoring. So now good-bye computer and hello TV screen; Wimbledon is calling, more alluringly than the estimable Bali Hai ever did.


  1. Tennis in art?

    Film? Well, Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN with its famous zoom shot of Robert Walker not following the bouncing ball but obsessively fixing on Farley Granger. Also, 1968's THE DOVE, a short film parodying Ingmar Bergman, in which Death arrives at a family picnic and is challenged to a game of badminton, which he loses. Okay, it's not quite tennis.

    Literature? Have to be be a few great poems about tennis though none spring to mind. Amazon has TENNIS SHORTS: GREAT WRITING ON TENNIS AND LIFE that includes pieces by Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Anne Lamott, Paul Theroux, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, and others.

    And Nabokov -- not a Simon favorite, I take it -- played and wrote about the game. Lionel Trilling on LOLITA: "...that in recent fiction no lover has thought of his beloved with so much tenderness, that no woman has been so charmingly evoked, in such grace and delicacy, as Lolita; the description of her tennis game, in which even her racket has an erotic charm, is one of the few examples of rapture in modern writing."

    But a cruel sport, tennis: love equals zero.

  2. Another film that featured tennis was The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, with a rather fantastic (though not really all that fantastic) game between a youngish Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) and Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) -- back in the days when players of the White Sport sported trousers and longsleeved shirts (and no mannish Kate Hepburns among them).

    Which allows me to segue to Julia Georges: one of the only female players, I think, not cursed with "thunder thighs".

  3. On the elegance of white attire in the White Sport, I'm all for that; even if I do like the introduction of lemon-yellow, lime-green and orange-orange balls to the game.

  4. Thanks for saying something nice about Marion Bartoli.

  5. Wow, you weren't joking about Sharapova! Every time she hit the ball, I was reminded of vuvuzelas, Ned Beatty in "Deliverance," and other horrible noises.

  6. Novak Djokovic is now Wimbledon champion and is ranked No. 1 in world tennis rankings. Yet newspapers often refer to him as "The Serb," as if he is an ominous and dangerous character in a Frederick Forsyth thriller. Are there no affectionate nicknames for Serbians?

  7. "...newspapers often refer to him [Novak Djokovic] as "The Serb," as if he is an ominous and dangerous character in a Frederick Forsyth thriller. Are there no affectionate nicknames for Serbians?"

    At least they don't refer to him as an "Ethnic Cleanser".

  8. Martina Hingis used to be the one to watch, not only for physical beauty but also for elegance of play click here . These days there is rather too much hitting the ball hard from the baseline, and not enough stylish finesse.

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