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.

Summer is winding down, and—as the annual U.S. Open tournament gets underway—tennis is in the air. The sport doesn't boast teams behind which entire cities can rally, or a climactic season to speak of, or even a top player with the celebrity status of a baseball or basketball player. But tennis does have a devoted fan base; people who love to watch tennis often also play tennis, and therefore tend to feel strong sense of ownership in the sport.

Over the years, a number of recreational tennis players have written about tennis for The Atlantic from a variety of angles. Their articles, spanning the twentieth century, have addressed everything from an amateur's motives to the exclusivity and racial discrimination of country clubs to the delight of playing with a wooden racket. The writers all share one thing in common: a deep affection for the game.

More than a hundred years ago, in "Lawn Tennis" (August 1903), Arthur Stanwood Pier wrote an article staking out his position that tennis is better than other sports. Pier argued that, while Tennis does not involve the "heroic injuries" of more brawny sports like polo or football, it is the element of opposition—not of real danger—that glorifies a sport. And tennis is pure opposition.

Tennis more than any other game has the qualities that gave the duel its fascination; it is all eager and alive, two men at close quarters, feinting, parrying, thrusting, both alert for an opening to give the final coup de grace.

It's all the better, Pier continued, when the coup de grace can be delivered with a devilishly placed winner.

There is a human amusement in making your antagonist run back and forth thus earnestly and desperately; but one has a more exalted satisfaction in placing a shot so sudden, swift, and accurate that the opposing player has not time to move. Teasing your man, you feel your power over a particular individual; paralyzing him by a stroke, you experience a moment of omnipotence.

A little more than twenty years later, Stephen Wallis Merrihew referred to that same "exalted satisfaction" in his article "The Amateur at Bay," (October 1924), in which he defines and defends amateur status. Sports, he wrote, are amateur "not by definition, but by right of being." He continued,

Just as pedestrians are accorded priority on thoroughfares because pedestrianism is the natural state of man, so amateur sports stand on a higher plane than professional sport. The player antedated the ticket-taker, the amateur antedated the professional.

Today's Grand Slam tournaments—rife with endorsements and million-dollar prizes—couldn't be further from the "higher plane" of amateur sports, but Merrihew's cherished amateurs are hardly a thing of the past: they can be found in all shapes, sizes, ages, and ability on public tennis courts around the world, playing without a thought of money. If not money, what is their motivation? Love of the game for starters. But Merrihew says there's more to an amateur's drive:

Every sport devotee knows that while love of the game attracts and holds him to his specialty, there are times when love is absent from his play and when he gets no pleasure from his mightiest efforts. Pride, the honor of the club, or section, or country, the fighting spirit—these are among the mixed motives that drive one forward toward victory in the fifth set of a tennis match or in the finish of a Marathon race.

"A Beautiful Game," (January 1959), by Ralph Samuelson, is a perfect example of the varying motives that inspire amateur players. The story takes place during a country club's annual summer tournament, and Herbie, the young narrator, starts out with a credulous love of the game.

I had been hitting volleys and smashing lobs up at the net and now was back at the baseline, and John and I were just rallying easy. It was a beautiful afternoon there at the Club; God, I loved it, it just gets you—the cool hazy early summertime before the heat sets in and the girls in their white skirts and brown legs and the brotherhood of tennis all mixed into one—like the Olympics, almost, the way it brings things together.

He breezes through his early matches, but later, in the final round, his euphoria subsides and the pressure sets in. "A tournament is a queer thing, all right. It starts out with so many, and so few in the stands watching, and ends up with so few, but so many in the stands." The ambience on the court bears no resemblance to the delightful conditions of the previous afternoon.

I noticed the flag go limp on its pennant as if a lead weight had been tied to the end of it. The breeze stopped dead. There was nothing but him and the sun and a great white splash of crowd in the stands on my right, and that's about all I remember of that set, running back and forth across the court as he ran me, and his shots hitting those side lines as if they were two yards wide and no wind.

He loses the first set, and it only gets worse. In the blistering heat, he loses the second. He manages to eke out the third set, but by the fourth, there's no inkling of pride, honor of the club, or fighting spirit—let alone love of the game.

After that I was wondering who I was, waiting for his serve that kept getting stronger and beginning to see my backhands hitting the tape instead of clearing, and I thought of the thermos jug again as I ran from side to side and wondered when to go to the net and when not to, my right hand wet and trembling whenever I let go the racket to wipe the grip against my t-shirt. All I could think of was to get a drink when this misery was over.

Herbie's plight is familiar to anyone who's ever lost a humbling match. But there's a bigger issue at hand in this story: Herbie's opponent in the finals—a boy referred to only as "the Negro"—is the first African-American to play in the club tournament, and club members are less than enthusiastic. He warms up alone by hitting against the wall, and his first-round opponent defaulted to avoid playing with him. The story was published nearly a decade after Althea Gibson became the first African-American to compete in the U.S. Open, but Samuelson's description of the crowd for the final match shows an enduring racial tension.

The crowd was there, all in white, and they were quiet because of the Negro, you could feel it. They had been following the tournament and anticipating that the Negro would be beat out before now. They couldn't really relax and enjoy the tournament as they had in the past. He was kind of ruining their summer.

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

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