Tennis and Temperaments
OWING in a large measure to the superlatives of ballyhoo, the American public has come to believe that we are the greatest sporting nation in the world. From the point of view of victories, this may be true, for over the past twenty-five years we have had more than our share in nearly every form of sport. But from the point of view of permanent and widespread interest in sporting events we can in no way compare with the English. I am not speaking of the size of the crowds, which are admittedly much larger in England; I am speaking of a genuine devotion to the sport, irrespective of whether or not the team is of championship calibre.
It is, of course, a fallacy to believe that the Englishman takes his sport more lightly than we do. Everything disproves it. As a player he works quite as hard, practises quite as dutifully; probably with less talk, certainly with less advertising from the newspapers. As a spectator, particularly the tennis spectator with whom I am familiar, he is far more serious, knows more about the game, and follows it more keenly than the average American spectator. Good teams or bad, the English turn out with enthusiasm for their sport; over here, when the ability of an American individual or team declines, so does the attendance, and to a certain extent the interest in the sport itself.
The English have a natural advantage over us in time and education: think of the many sporting generations that have been disciplined ’in the playing fields of Eton.’ Their abiding interest in sport is well exemplified at Wimbledon. For years no Englishman had better than an outside chance of getting very far in the tournament, and yet interest in the event never lagged. If the final rounds of our tennis championships are watched by, say, twelve thousand people, the fact will be mentioned in the headlines. At Wimbledon, where the tournament lasts a fortnight, between sixteen and eighteen thousand people crowd around the centre court, with some ten thousand watching the other enclosures. So great is the demand for reserved seats that applications are made in January and drawn by lot in February or March; the tournament is a sellout four months before it begins.
That so large a crowd can gather around the single centre court at Wimbledon is due to the fact that two large sections are reserved for standing room. This, in my opinion, is an extraordinary example of the true love of sport. Matches at Wimbledon last into the late evening; and as you leave through the main gate, comfortably seated in a large car that will bring you back the next day in time for your match, you will note long lines of people forming in front of the ticket windows to await their turn to buy an admission. There they will stand, or sit on a folding chair, all night long till eleven o’clock the next morning, to buy a ticket. And to what does this ticket entitle them? To stand as tightly packed as sardines in a can and watch tennis all afternoon until seven or eight o’clock in the evening.
What is more, the English are as appreciative and impartial as any audience I have seen. Their likes and dislikes are not based on snap judgment, but on the traditions that have grown up about the game. Brilliant as the individual may be, if he has unfortunate mannerisms or does not conduct himself according to their standards, his shots will be applauded, but he will never win their friendship; and it is a friendship well worth having.
Let me give you an amusing illustration of Wimbledon tradition. Some years ago, on the first Saturday of the tournament, I went out rather earlier than usual to have lunch with one of the officials. On arriving I found tremendous commotion; telephones were ringing, telegraph boys were dashing in and out, worried officials paced the floor. I feared the worst. At the first opportunity I asked the club secretary what was the matter, and received this startling reply: ‘We cawn’t find any rawspberries.’ I was nonplused, but a second discreet question brought the answer. It seems that at the Saturday Night Dinner of the first Wimbledon (some fifty-odd years previous) raspberries and ice cream had been served for dessert, and this had been the traditional dessert ever since. Now, alas, the crop had failed, and not a single ripe raspberry was available in the British Isles! Tradition must not be broken; so the officials telephoned to Paris, had raspberries put on a plane, and that night we had raspberries and ice cream for dessert. At first you may smile and think of it as nothing more than an absurd story, but on second thought perhaps you will agree that there is something very real behind it.
Now consider for a moment the countries that are new to the sport, countries where the correct thing has not yet become a tradition — countries, in short, that have not had raspberries and ice cream for fifty years.
Each year, during the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup, representatives from the competing nations meet to consider any changes that might improve the rules and regulations. At the meeting that took place this past summer, the Ceskoslovenska Lawntennisova Asociace proposed some regulations which tell a story between the lines. Six additions to the rules were proposed; the first four related to the naming of neutral referees, but the last two were of more general interest:—
5. If a match is interrupted by spectators, the Referee to have power to stop the match or declare it void and direct it to be replayed with different umpires and linesmen; and in the event of a Nation refusing to replay, the Referee to have power to declare such Nation the loser.
6. The Referee to have power to demand that the stands or part of the stands be cleared, and should this be unenforceable, to direct the match to be replayed with the ground closed to the public, and to appoint umpires and linesmen of his own choosing.
These amendments were supported by an argument which asked the reader what he would do in each of the following situations. In other words, what would you do
(2) when some of the onlookers make offensive remarks concerning the players and continually repeat same?
(3) when the cloth barrier between the players and public is torn down and the public encroach on the court, the officials being unable to control them?
(5) when the crowd jeer and laugh at bad or mistimed strokes of the visitors, continually crying out ‘Repeat, repeat!‘?
(6) when the linesmen give wrong decisions against the visitors so often that it is obvious that it is purposely done to handicap the visitors, and when no change of linesmen has any beneficial effect?
(7) when the footfault judge footfaults the visiting player when he makes no footfault and fails to see the home player’s footfaults when he is continually doing so?
(10) when the referee is appealed to and has always the same reply: ’I have seen nothing’?
Differences in tradition — or sometimes the lack of tradition — are reflected in the players quite as much as in the spectators or officials; they are, in short, differences in temperament. And differences in temperament are never more conspicuous than when that eternal argument arises: How do players of ‘yesterday’ compare with those of to-day? This question is discussed at practically every major tennis meeting, but is most provocative when taken up by representatives of different nations gathered about the tea tables of Wimbledon. As might be expected, the English — and to a certain degree the Colonials, who inherit the English traditions — are unanimous in their opinion; to them the greatest players that have ever existed were the two Doherty brothers, who reigned during the first decade of the present century. Their admiration for the two brothers is close to reverence.
The Continentals, having heard so much about the two brothers from the mother country of tennis, have also, it seems to me, a tendency to rate them much too high. I am perfectly willing to agree that the Dohertys were the best in their day; in fact, I will credit them, together with our own pioneers, — Sears, Larned, Davis, Ward, and Wright, — with lifting the game out of obscurity and leaving it well along the road to popularity. But to believe that the excellence of their day could stand up to the modern game is, to me, incredible. I doubt that they would be ranked in the first thirty to-day. Indeed, I doubt if Brooks, Wilding, and McLoughlin, who followed them, could do better than the second ten. I don’t say this to disparage: the truth is, this second group pulled the game out of the society column and had it recognized as one of the most strenuous of sports.
My reasons for this attack on tradition are to me quite simple and logical. In the first place, there is that constant tendency to glorify the past and to attribute to our heroes qualities they never possessed. But in the second place, — and this is the real basis of my argument, — the game has progressed. There is no reason to believe that tennis is in any way different from other sports, such as track or golf. All track records are of modern vintage; one has only to remember Berlin. And to-day Bobby Jones is only one of a considerable number of golfers who can score in the 60’s. That being so, why should not tennis have progressed equally fast? And it has!
The American twist service invented by Ward and Wright has been vastly improved upon, for speed has been added to the twist. The smash so gracefully executed by the Dohertys would seem childish compared with the power behind those of McLoughlin, and these in turn are not as fast as those of Vines, Budge, and his contemporaries. The volleys of yesterday may have been well placed, but they were more of a block shot; to-day they are a crisp and decisive stroke, as exemplified by the beautiful volleying of Allison. The steadiness of Sears or Larned was not only improved upon by Tilden and Lacoste, but was made aggressive and more effective by the addition of spin as well as severity. The ground strokes of modern tennis, which skim the net with terrific speed, were but slow Lawfords in the Gay Nineties.
It is all quite logical, for, as in other lines of sport, tennis equipment has been greatly improved, in particular the ball. Furthermore, remember that we have a much larger number of people playing the game. Obviously, with larger numbers to draw from, there are many more chances of finding good players than fifteen or twenty years ago. In fact, some of the best players of today have been developed in countries that in 1905 probably had never even heard of tennis.
I am talking, of course, of world tennis, not what is merely happening in one country. For a country, like a team or an individual, can go into a slump. France, after a number of years of being at the top, now seems to have a dearth of good players. Meantime the game has gone forward elsewhere. In 1905 there were only a handful of nations in the Davis Cup; to-day anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-five challenge each year. Surely, with all this activity, the game must have been speeded up.
It is my theory that each tennis generation makes its contribution to the game, and that those who follow profit by what has been done before them.
The cosmopolitan tournaments are always the most entertaining. The mixture of nations, with their different temperaments and traditions, adds vastly to the picture. We had a taste of this during the time we held the Davis Cup, when foreign nations came over to challenge; to judge by the enthusiasm of our tennis public, they thoroughly enjoyed it. Abroad you have it constantly and in its most extreme form, especially in the smaller tournaments and the newer tennis nations.
In England, of course, everything is quite serene and according to custom, even to the clothes that you wear. At Wimbledon, for example, a black or dark blue pin stripe in your white flannel trousers is not permitted. A friend of mine ran short of white flannels and in extremity donned a pair with a very light gray pin stripe; as he was about to enter the centre court he was sent back to change. It is n’t done, that’s all. As can be imagined, there were long and earnest debates when girls first proposed wearing shorts on the centre court. A compromise was finally reached permitting foreigners to wear them but stipulating that English girls must appear in skirts.
The English have a great sense of humor, but they will not appreciate a funny situation if it is out of place — that’s simply bad form. To them a tennis court is not the stage for antics or humor. Therefore, when one of the greatest players of his day, a Frenchman, became so exasperated with his bad playing that he sat down in the middle of the court and sobbed like a child, it caused more than a little consternation. When a Spaniard, on missing a side-line volley, would vault the net, rush to the back stop of his opponent’s court, pick up the offending ball, and bite it repeatedly, there was hardly a laugh. When a well-known Austrian count defaulted in the final of a tournament because his opponent’s shadow bothered him, it created more indignation than entertainment. Nor were the qualities of Rumania’s bestknown player ever fully appreciated. He was the trick stroke artist of the tennis world. His most outstanding shot was a serve, which he would deliver over his shoulder as he walked over the base line with his back to the court. He was banking on the theory, of course, that his opponent, seeing his back turned, would not be expecting a serve and would therefore not be able to return it. There are many incidents of this nature that I could mention, some much more inexcusable, but this will no doubt suffice to show the conflict of temperament and emotions so interesting in European tennis.
These misunderstandings — even the more serious ones, such as the protest of the Czechoslovaks — are a passing phase. It takes a country but a very short time to acquire the first polish. Even though this veneer may be but skin deep, it is enough to do away with seventy-five per cent of the irritations. I could mention two or three countries that have acquired such self-control within the last ten years, but prior to that time were the chief offenders.
Nor am I particularly disturbed by the professional movement which has created so much discussion these past few years. In fact, I am inclined to consider it a very good thing, for two reasons. The first is that golf, it seems to me, has maintained a perfect balance between the amateur and professional players; and it is my belief that a similar healthy state of affairs can and should exist in lawn tennis.
My second reason is not quite so complimentary. For some years there has been a group of superior players (the group is not restricted to any one nationality) who have had a feeling that the game owes them something. They do not realize that their opportunities were made possible by the many generations of tennis players that preceded them; by the untiring devotion of officials; by the fact that associations put back into the game the money that the successful tournaments make. They do not realize that the happiness and pleasure they are seeking are to be found in the playing of the game, the people they meet, and the foreign lands they visit. As long as they think that the game owes them a living, they might as well turn professional. It is only then that they will realize what they have given up.
As I have said, I hope that eventually we shall have a recognized professional group similar to golf, but, as is always the case in pioneering, those that have recently turned professional are finding a pretty rough road. They have given up all the fun for a return in dollars and cents, and that has been very small. I am not going to tell tales out of school. But remember: you only hear of the big gates and the successes; silence or a few meagre lines give only an inkling of the grind and the disappointments.