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Anyone for Tennis?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Fifth-class player that I was, I seem to have retired from tennis, roughly half a century ago, just in time.

A few years ago, I decided to splurge and add the Tennis Channel to my cable package. I begin most of my mornings watching tennis as I eat my breakfast, and it has allowed me to catch up on the sport that, as a boy, I loved above all others. Tennis was the game that, between the ages of 13 and 17, I played with the most passion. Those of my fantasies not given over to pathetic romantic conquest were devoted to tennis. Everything about the game appealed to me: Its elegance, its finesse, its clothes, the very sound—pock—the ball made coming off the racquet.

In those days (the early and middle 1950s), tennis was largely a suburban and country club sport. I was a city kid, with no hope of my family joining a country club. (My father thought golf the hobby of morons.) But Indian Boundary, a public park near our apartment on the far northside of Chicago, had four concrete tennis courts, and the high school I went to, Nicholas Senn, perennially won the city championship.

Despite its improved overall quality, tennis itself seems to have lost some of its luster.

The summer of my first year in high school, I had the good luck of landing the job of ballboy—and demonstrator—for the tennis coach of Northwestern, a jolly, heavyset man named Paul Bennett, who gave private lessons. I earned 50 cents an hour and was given a 10 percent discount on equipment and clothes. I’ve not landed a better job since.

How good a player was I? Not, the short answer is, good enough. I had textbook-perfect strokes, a strong serve, and decent speed and footwork. The sad truth, though, is that I preferred looking good—looking, that is, stylish—to winning. Along with a friend named Bob Swenson, now an epidemiologist in Philadelphia, I won the city high-school doubles championship, but in the tournaments I entered in singles I rarely got beyond the second round. No one looked finer going down to defeat. I wore tan Fred Perry shorts, white LaCoste shirts, and Jack Purcell shoes. Had they given awards for best-dressed player, the mantle in our living room would have groaned under the weight of my trophies.

I gave up tennis when I went off to college, realizing that my talent at the game was not anywhere near my ambition. I watched the grand slam tournaments on television and I would occasionally go to a professional match. But I never picked up a tennis racquet again.

Everything about the game appealed to me: Its elegance, its finesse, its clothes, the very sound—pock—the ball made coming off the racquet.

Not long after my voluntary retirement, the game of tennis changed, both on and off the court. The introduction of metal racquets as standard equipment was decisive. The flat drives and slices that I had grown up hitting were now largely replaced by heavy topspin shots, especially on the forehand side. The smooth, one-handed backhand gave way to the choppy, two-handed stroke. The net game, so essential in my era, was now supplanted by long rallies from the baseline, and looping, topspin-laden ground strokes became the modus operandi of the best players.

Soon, open tennis, from which professionals were no longer excluded, came into being, with ever-larger prize money and heavy checks for player endorsements the order of the day. Such modest but brilliant players as Rod Laver and Kenny Rosewall were replaced by the noisy jerks Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Connors and McEnroe justified insulting linesmen and umpires and goading crowds in the name of the competitive spirit.

Today’s top players are probably better than the great players of my era. Pete Sampras would likely have defeated Pancho Gonzalez, and Roger Federer would likely have defeated Rod Laver. Despite its improved overall quality, though, tennis itself seems to have lost some of its luster.

Had they given awards for best-dressed player, the mantle in our living room would have groaned under the weight of my trophies.

The top-flight players today are less and less individuals and more and more teams, or, more precisely, mini-corporations. “I want to thank my team,” winners of tournaments commonly announce in post-game ceremonies. Big bucks are involved, and players train like mad in pursuit of them. The casual air, once part of the game, has departed. By his “team” a player means his coach, his trainer, and his conditioning coach—with his knock-out beautiful but usually phlegmatic girlfriend not mentioned, yet understood to be part of the team. Perhaps he ought also to mention his private pilot, his business manager, and his accountant.

Last time I looked, Roger Federer had won $69 million in prize money. This does not, of course, include his continuing endorsements with Rolex, Mercedes-Benz, Nike, Wilson, Lindt Chocolates, Gillette, a private Jet-rental company, and I don’t know what else, which, taken together, must come to three times his earnings on the tennis court. Federer is a gent—a credit to the game, in the grand old cliché—but he is also big business.

Kids now start under professional tennis coaches well before the age of ten. Tennis players, men and women, are becoming taller and more muscular. The average male tennis player today must be roughly 6’2,” with several players 6’5” and above, and an American named John Isner, having lost his way from the basketball court, is 6’9.” Many female players are six feet or taller. Serena Williams, America’s top female player, has the arms and legs of a pro linebacker.

I watch the Tennis Channel with the sound off to avoid the grunting of Ms. Williams, Maria Sharapova, and a great many other female players. This grunting makes watching a tennis match resemble nothing so much as listening to the sounds emerging from a Masters and Johnson sex laboratory.

Soon, open tennis, from which professionals were no longer excluded, came into being, with ever-larger prize money and heavy checks for player endorsements the order of the day.

Male players also grunt. Rafael Nadal, at present the world’s number two player, is a grunter of long standing and high sonority. Nadal is a great player, strong, fast, deft in every way, but watching him is not an unalloyed pleasure; it can in fact be rather painful. Tennis for Nadal seems less a game than a torment. That he is a bit compulsive doesn’t help. He picks at the seat of his shorts, he flicks a strand of hair out of his eyes, he towels off his arms after nearly every point. His face takes on a stricken look when he goes into his serving motion. He moves wonderfully from far behind the baseline, but the strain behind his speed is evident, almost featured. His sculpted musculature speaks to joyless hours in the gym. Everything he does shows excess effort. Even though it has brought him millions, my advice to Nadal would be to give up his day job. Nothing seems worth the expenditure of such relentlessly humorless intensity.

Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Ana Ivanovic, and a few other contemporary players seem to derive pleasure from tennis, but elegance and grace for the most part have departed the sport. Might it be that the stakes have become so high as to preclude joy in the game itself? Has the thorough professionalization of the game—most contemporary tennis players turn professional in their adolescence—in some way killed it? Fifth-class player that I was, I seem to have retired from tennis, roughly half a century ago, just in time.

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato. His new book, Essays in Biography, will be published by Axios Press this fall.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “The Complex Life of the Couch Potato.” Nick Schulz reveals “How the Progressives Almost Killed Football.” Peter A. Coclanis asks “Are There Hidden Virtues to Bowling Alone?” Roger Bate observes “As American as…Cricket.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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