Flashbacks August 2005

For the Love of the Game

With the U.S. Open in mid-swing, a look back at a century of Atlantic articles on tennis.
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Samuelson's story evokes the malicious side of the notorious country-club exclusivity. But the self-absorbed, snobby, image-obsessed culture can also be comical. Arthur Hoppe's "The Tiddling Tennis Theorem" (January 1977), based on an existing tennis club, is a risible account of a tennis instructor who taught everything but tennis. "The Professor," as he was called, taught at the Tiddling Tennis Club—a pleasant, tree-shaded club encompassed by a stone wall in a once fashionable but steadily deteriorating neighborhood. During a student's first lesson, the Professor would invariably begin with a monologue:

So you have decided to take up tennis. A marvelous decision. You couldn't have chosen a sport with more to offer: a concentrated exercise, intellectual challenge, inexpensive equipment, and a new circle of friends who will provide lifelong companionship. Of course, as in all sports, there are difficulties to surmount. The first difficulty you will encounter is that no one wants to play with you.

The problem, he explains, is that "no tennis player, no matter what his caliber, wants to play tennis with any other tennis player who is not better than he." The first lesson addresses the various ways to "disguise the fact that you are a rank beginner," in hopes of successfully arranging a game. "At this very moment, millions of tennis players are hitting the ball back and forth over nets between white lines. And precisely half of them wish they were playing with someone else." The second lesson covers the reverse situation: how to avoid a game should a lesser player offer.

The danger of accepting the challenge of this lesser player lies not only in the damage it will do to your social standing to be seen playing with him, but in the threat that he may defeat you if you are off your game. And, as you are always off your game, this is a distinct possibility.

But the most important part of tennis is acquiring the right look—and for that, the Professor sends his students to Miss Agnes, "a thin and dour woman who is feared by all but the oldest members."

"Three shirts, three shorts," she says, piling them on the counter like an Army quartermaster. "Be sure to put them through the washing machine for at least sixteen or seventeen cycles before wearing them. That's sixty-two-fifty. One pair of leather tennis shoes at twenty-five. All the best players wear leather tennis shoes. Now you'll want this ninety-five-dollar composition aluminum, fiber glass, and wood racket with the steel-belted throat. It's strung with the finest gut, of course, to give you more feel on your touch shots. It's valuable because it's expensive. Carry it around and everybody'll think you're a good player. And because it's the latest racket on the market, they'll ask you how you like it. Just say, 'well, it's probably taken a little edge off my drives, but it's sure helped my tennis elbow.' And speaking of tennis elbow, you'll want this three-ninety-five strap to go around your forearm. That shows you have tennis elbow which proves you've played a lot of tennis and are therefore a reasonably good player. Then you'll need this elastic knee bandage to explain, once you get on the courts, why you aren't."

The "ninety-five-dollar composition aluminum, fiber glass, and wood racket with a steel belted throat" is a fitting (if mocking and exaggerated) example of the late 1970s movement away from traditional wood rackets and on to the bigger, more powerful metal frames that granted power at the expense of control. The pros held on to their wood rackets until the early 1980s, swearing that the power of metal couldn't trump the control of wood; but metal rackets got even more powerful and young players readily made the switch, and by the mid-eighties, wood rackets were becoming a thing of the past. Now, the transition to metal seemed part of the natural evolution of the game, and most people wonder how they ever played with wood rackets.

But Marshall Fisher's "The Feel of Wood" (July 1995) tells a different story: he says wood rackets—and grass courts—are essential elements of the game, and wants to bring them back. "Although I grew up playing mainly on hard courts, tennis with a big racket on asphalt sometimes seems as much an abomination as baseball indoors on Astroturf." And he's not alone in this sentiment. A tennis club on Cape Cod that hosts an annual "Woody Tournament"—"No steel, aluminum, graphite, titanium, or composite need apply. If it didn't come from a tree, leave it at home..."—is just one example of a resurgence of old-school tennis. Practicing before the first round of this tournament, Fisher rediscovered a long forgotten pleasure: the feel of wood.

Sure, it was harder to find the sweet spot on the small head: and even when I did, there was none of the space-age power of today's launch pads. It required a lot more skill to hit any particular shot. At the net I really had to volley, with the correct half-swing form; I couldn't just stick out my shield and rely on its innate power. Fundamental technique, remembered deep in the muscles, became critical again. The game was also more fun.

Fisher's longing for a return to wood rackets is more than nostalgic: he says that the advances in racket technology have actually changed the nature of the game, and not for the better. Fifteen years after the International Tennis Federation allowed oversized metal rackets,

...most tennis fans lament the state of the professional men's game, in which a typical point consists of an ace, or perhaps one or two cannonball shots after the serve. The power that professionals can summon from state-of-the-art rackets is simply too much for the delicate touch game of yore to survive.

But with wood, Fisher explains, the pace remains slow enough that

...one needs, and has a chance to use, every shot in the book. The chip return, the slice approach shot, the defensive underspin lob, all find their strategic moment. And the feel of grass underfoot complements the feel of wood in the hand: these are the conditions for which the game was designed.

Today, most tennis tournaments are played with big rackets on hard courts; top participants star in TV commercials; and the box seats are reserved for fashionable millionaires who don sunglasses and straw hats. But once the matches get started, it is nothing more than two players in pure opposition, battling in the blistering heat of the sun, "feinting, parrying, thrusting, both alert for an opening to give the final coup de grace."

—Mara Vatz

Mara Vatz, formerly an intern for The Atlantic Online, is a freelance writer based in Boston.
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