And in doing so, challenged the social exclusivity of private tennis clubsby David Berry / June 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Think of tennis and politics and the image that occurs is of Boris Johnson and David Cameron daintily batting a ball over a west London net. Tennis carries with it a blue tint, a decorous conservatism which is always on display at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) during the Wimbledon Championships, when its pavilions and lawns exude the leafy, buttoned-up charm of the prosperous shires and the more ambitious English suburbs.
The sport does indeed have bourgeois roots, as Patrice Hagelauer—the former French professional brought in by the Lawn Tennis Association to raise Britain’s game in 1999—discovered when he dug into tennis’s sociological undergrowth. The British game, he complained, was a “hobby for a few privileged adults,” and the private tennis club, a “social club for middle-class amateurs.” Every year, the strawberries and Champagne at SW19 and the presence of the Duke of Kent reinforce this image. Despite the success in recent years of Andy Murray and now Johanna Konta, most tennis in Britain is still played away from the public gaze, in private clubs hidden behind privet hedges, their gated boundaries defined by class. Indeed, both Konta and Murray were fortunate enough to be able to pay to train abroad (Konta initially in Australia—her nation of birth—and then Spain; Murray just in the latter) an opportunity that rarely falls into the hands of many budding young players. And yet there was a moment when things could have taken a different turn—when Labour politics and tennis became entwined, when miners and postmen, bank clerks and shop workers all competed at the All England Club, in a “People’s Wimbledon.”
It is a little fanciful to imagine today’s Labour Party—not even Jeremy Corbyn’s young Momentum supporters—fostering a network of socialist tennis clubs. But between the wars, tennis became an improbable focus of the Labour movement, which aimed to plant its flag in the game and popularise it among Britain’s working class. Had it succeeded, British tennis might have produced more champions.