There is a similarity between politics and tennis, which I note, even though I am passionately interested in tennis and only slightly in politics. This is too bad, as my wife reminded me the other day. Interest in politics might get me published, for example, in The New York Times Sunday Review section. Interest in tennis would not.
It is true that interest in tennis once got me an article about Mary Pierce into Vogue, even though my great love was Martina Hingis. But John Heilpern beat me to it with a piece about Hingis, so I got Pierce. She was interesting, but not someone I could feel passionate about, because involvement in either tennis or politics is predicated on passion, which is at the very least akin to sexual, and Pierce was way too tomboyish.
Let’s start with tennis then. Being a fan, for me, is definitely tinged with sexuality where women players are concerned. Steffi Graf was the great tennis star of my younger days, but all I could summon up for her was respect. Perhaps her nose was too big. She definitely lacked charm, though she clearly had intelligence. But Hingis had both. Lacking a powerful serve, the Achilles heel of many a female player, was certainly also Hingis’s, although she also lacked the brute force of certain current players, e.g. Serena Williams—and a good thing too.
Hingis had strategic smarts and won matches on strategy and tactics; she could outthink her opponents. She also had movie starlet good looks, charmingly lightly accented English, extreme youth for a good while, and a certain daintiness. Not many female tennis players have daintiness. Maria Sharapova, for example, has looks. But daintiness? Forget it. Thus it never occurred to me to think of Hingis as an athlete. Even from Pierce about herself, as I recall, “athlete” came to me as a bit of a surprise.
But women’s tennis today is full of conspicuous athletes, and very poor lookers. Just try to feel sexual about Kvitova or Azarenka, let alone Kuznetsova. I would as soon dine on goat excrement. There is today only one woman player about whom I have strong feelings, Julia Goerges. She is beautiful and gifted, and has a terrific serve (125 miles), but not quite great. One rarely sees her on television, being German rather than American. If only she could be black or at least butch, but no such luck.
Now what about male tennis players? As far as I’m concerned, they do not depend on anything erotic, but here other things preponderate. Thus Roger Federer is the most elegant, gentlemanly, calm, and seemingly effortless tennis player, whose playing, besides being talented, is also balletically beautiful. And beauty, I feel, is always a bit sensual as well.
Then there is my ex-compatriot, Novak Djokovic, from our shared ex-country, ex-Yugoslavia. A superb all-around player, excelling at everything and, perhaps especially, return of serve. That is where intelligence may count for most: foreseeing where the opponent’s serve will come. And he too moves handsomely, and has, on top, a good sense of humor, as exhibited in his parodies of certain female players. I only wish he wouldn’t grunt.
Grunting, or screaming, was invented by another Yugoslav, Monica Seles, but it is more recently that it has become hideously perfected by any number of women and even some men. It can be disgusting, especially on television, which brings you particularly close. It is the very antithesis of charm, and I dearly wish it could be prohibited.
Lack of charm is certainly prominent in any number of male players: take Andy Murray or Andy Roddick. If he had even a modicum of it, Rafael Nadal too would be high on my list. He also grunts, but far worse than that, he plays with an almost bestial ferocity, with a look you would expect from a pit bull or fighting rooster, but not from a human being. And Nadal’s thighs could give a piano a bad name. He is said to be charming off court, but what good is that? Do we care about what our favorite movie star does off screen? Well, as long as it isn’t Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen.
And then something else comes with tennis. We identify with players of our sex more readily than with those in team sports. The tennis player is out there on his own, mano a mano. No fellow player passes a ball to him, no coach gives him a pep talk during halftime, no referee hands him a warning card, no opposing players crowd him in any way. There is no restorative intermission, as in soccer, and a match can go on for hours, sometimes even days. A football or baseball player may sort of represent me; a tennis player is me. Or, if he is a linguist like Federer, I.
Now what about politics? If we know too little about a politician, as is often the case, we cannot identify with him. If we know too much, as is equally often the case, we can identify even less. Politics, if not quite a sport, is to a considerable extent a game. The winner is the most gifted game player, manipulator, opportunist. There is a lack of transparency; too much of it is played behind closed doors.
One wonders about the ethics and intelligence (or lack of them) in a politician. “I am not sufficiently devoid of all talent,” says the autobiographical protagonist of Anatole France’s The Scarlet Lily, to occupy myself with politics.” And “a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man,” writes that charming poet E. E. Cummings. If only he had not banished capital letters, which, for me, ranks with screaming when you serve.
But take the very word “politics,” which has become, in many contexts, synonymous with “dirty politics.” As a profession, “politician” is, in common parlance, second only to that most deplored and ridiculed one, “lawyer.” Seriously now, can you, unless you are black, identify with Obama? Or, unless you are wealthy, with Romney? The very word “politicking,” close cousin to “politics,” is malodorous.
The matter of morality comes in. Would I vote for a politician about whom I knew that he cheated at cards, on his wife, on his income tax returns? I don’t know, because I have no personal knowledge and can’t trust what I read much more than what I don’t read about him. But then do I care about what sort of a husband Federer is? As it happens, he seems to be a devoted one, but I identify with him only as a tennis player in any case. As long as he is a champion on the tennis court, I don’t care what scandal might emerge about him in divorce court. And even if I were a bird in the trees and Nadal could charm me out of them, I still would not root for him in tennis. One look at him Rottweilering it up as he returns serve, and I’d root for his opponent—unless he happens to be John Isner or Ivo Karlovic: gigantism, to me, is not art.
In tennis, at any rate, the question of intellectuality doesn’t come up the way it does in American politics. Or do you think Stevenson or McGovern had a Chinaman’s chance of being elected president? (Oops, sorry; I meant Chinese gentleman’s chance.) Even JFK, despite his canniness, probably made it only on not being an intellectual. Consider what sort of books he read outside politics, and that charming, nonintellectual Boston accent of his. In Europe, on the other hand, an intellectual can make it in politics. Perhaps also, should there be one, even in tennis.