The most beautiful game

Geoff Dyer considers the beauty of tennis
May 25, 2011

article body image

Some people can’t bear football. But is there anyone who doesn’t—to put it mildly—like tennis? Whereas football games are routinely tedious, tennis matches only occasionally disappoint (as when an unknown player carves a heroic path through a Grand Slam only to capitulate helplessly in the final). The standard of an averagely important tennis match—the kind you might see on an outside court in an early round at Queen’s—is superhuman.

This is striking because it is such a difficult game to play. Not to play well, but to play at all. (Squash is easy.) Tennis is like a piano—no fun until you can play it a bit. And as with keyboard so with court: coaching at a young age is hugely advantageous.

The first thing you have to do is serve—and it’s extremely difficult to serve, to get the ball over the net and into the service box. (I am 6ft 2in, have been playing tennis for years, and still, in a way that confounds several laws of biomechanics, regularly dump my serve into the bottom half of the net.) But wait—we have already skipped a stage. Before you can serve in the sense of hitting the ball, you have to do something else: you have to throw up the ball with your non-throwing hand, the hand that is typically useless for everything. The ball toss is all-important and very hard to get right; again, we have to go further back. It’s not just how you throw the ball, it’s how you hold the ball before throwing it. I used to always throw the ball too far back so that instead of hitting it when it was about two feet in front of me I hit it when it was directly over my head (thereby exerting chiropractically-expensive strain on my lower back). So I had to change the way I held the ball (angling the hand down, spreading the fingers wide as soon as the ball was released).

Don’t worry, this is not going to turn into a coaching manual (as if!). The point is that the lessons of serving are multiplied throughout every aspect of the game: a tiny adjustment in some distant, ostensibly irrelevant part of one’s body—a part that is not directly involved in striking the ball—has a disproportionate effect on where that ball ends up. Keeping your head down while attempting a top-spin one-handed backhand (as opposed to surging instinctively upward) is, in this regard, a major adjustment. So it’s not surprising that we watch, spellbound, as people who have mastered every aspect of this immensely difficult activity go about their immensely lucrative business on the clay of Paris or the lawns of Wimbledon.

But here’s the thing, here’s the lovely covenant of tennis: despite the huge gulf between them and us, everything that happens to the top players during a Grand Slam match is replicated by an average player in a park. You go through phases of hitting freely and fluently. Then, on an important point, you succumb to a fateful tightening of the shoulders. You are absolutely creaming someone—one set up, leading 4-0 in the second—and for no reason you miss a couple of sitters; the other person is back in the game and, before you can do anything about it, the match has turned into a precipice with you at the bottom. The progress of such a descent is described with agonising precision in Beach Boy by the novelist—and my sometime tennis rival—Ardashir Vakil, but we’ve all seen it happen at Wimbledon too. If a football team is 3-0 down with three minutes remaining, they will not win. With tennis, you may be a point away from defeat but, at the same time, you are only—only ever—a maximum of five points away from a new game, from the first of repeated opportunities to, as it were, start again from scratch. In no other sport does the scoring system have this inbuilt tendency to encourage comebacks. Or to snuff them out in an instant.

This makes tennis nerve-shreddingly exciting to watch, but does not mean it is easy to write about. On the contrary. Describing a match involves roughly the same difficulties as writing about sex. Typically there are just two people involved (doubles is frankly a minor attraction) and the vocabulary is similarly restricted (strokes, essentially) so that you end up with endless permutations of lob, volley, forehand, backhand and an assortment of verbs (powered, hit, lashed, fumbled). The contrast with the rich literature of boxing could hardly be more stark. The best tennis book is probably John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, about a match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in 1968. But there is no tennis equivalent of Norman Mailer’s The Fight or David Remnick’s King of the World. Part of the reason for this is that while boxing seems so often to be a symbolic enactment of larger racial (Max Schmeling versus Joe Louis) or political (Ali versus anyone) issues, tennis is always and only about tennis. Hence the need for personalities.


I know, I know… Personality in tennis is, according Martin Amis’s devastating formulation, “an exact synonym of a seven-letter duosyllable starting with ‘a’ and ending with ‘e’ (& also featuring, in order of appearance, an ‘ss,’ an ‘h,’ an ‘o,’ & an ‘l’).” But tennis did not just become popular in the era of personalities like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors—it became popular because of them and their effing and are-you-fucking-blinding assaults on a Wimbledon ruled by narcoleptic linesmen and retired RAF officer-umpires. Besides, Amis’s observation lays itself open to an obvious Connors-style pass: what’s wrong with being an asshole, asshole?

Certainly, the personalities brought a new and coarse intensity to the game, of which the fist pump might be seen as the gestural expression and legacy. Back in the days when Julian Barnes was moonlighting as the Observer’s television critic, he took a well-mannered stand against this addition to the repertoire of secular mudras. It must go, he insisted. Yet it has stayed and thrived. Not only that, its absence is taken as a sign of inadequacy, a lack of self-belief and willpower. The fist pump is now as integral to one’s game as killer ground strokes. For many, Tim Henman’s readiness to serve and volley could not compensate for an initial reluctance to pump his fist, and then—when he had just about incorporated it into his game—an inability to do so convincingly. By contrast, part of Andy Murray’s youthful appeal derived from the fact that he pumped that Scottish fist of his so readily and naturally (as instinctively, it now seems, as that open-mouthed, King-Learish howl to the gods of failure or the dejected slump of his now mature shoulders). Lest anyone think the fist pump is the preserve of the boys, Maria Sharapova deploys it with enough self-directed ferocity to suggest that, if push comes to shove, she will punch her own lights out.

The ubiquity of the fist pump, however, should not be taken as a symptom of the increasing loutishness of sport and society. Rafael Nadal (above left) is simultaneously the most pumped-up fist-pumper—did he get those biceps by fist-pumping?—and the most gracious and charming athlete imaginable.

If such displays of emotion are now openly encouraged, this is partly because the abusive heyday of Connors and McEnroe was followed, inevitably, by the dismal non-era of Ivan Lendl, for whom tennis was entirely about the extinction of personality (minus TS Eliot’s famous caveat that only someone with a personality can know what it means to escape from it.) Fortunately, the women’s game was thriving at this time, courtesy of Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.

But this is not intended to be an abbreviated history of the game; it’s just a prelude to making a point—to be constructed, appropriately, in the form of a rally—whose banality might prove illuminating. Being very good at tennis is not enough to capture the imagination of the public, not even those who are very interested in tennis. Everyone remembers the silent intensity of Borg, but I have to make an effort not to forget his fellow Swede Stefan Edberg, a Trotsky-like figure who has somehow been erased—by himself—from mental snapshots of the past. Yet all players are Edberg-like in that, ultimately, they are simply very good at tennis. It’s just that some of them make you believe that this derives from, and amounts to, so much more than being good at tennis; and that they’re all good at tennis in different ways. Which brings us, inevitably, to Roger Federer.

In football, it’s often assumed that there is a tacit incompatibility between playing stylishly and winning. There are of course exceptions but, given the choice, most managers will reject the former in favour of the latter. With Federer this distinction between utility and grace, between practicality and style, was put definitively to rest. The most effective way to play, not just in terms of results but in terms of wear and tear on the body, was also the most graceful. This was exemplified by a single shot: the balletic one-handed backhand. (At the other extreme, the ugliest way to play tennis is to hit two-handed on both sides, in the “style” of the monstrously efficient Monica Seles.)

At his peak—a peak which has probably passed—Federer represented an apotheosis of tennis-ness, of all the advances in technology, fitness, training, technique and mental toughness. In the larger history of the game, this sustained interlude of weightlessness—before Federer succumbed to gravity in the form of his earthbound nemesis Nadal—enabled us to believe in the line of Dostoevsky’s, tattooed on the arm of Serbian player Janko Tipsarevic: "beauty will save the world.” Well, the world of tennis, at any rate.

See also Lionel Shriver on the all-consuming game