Since tennis has recently enjoyed an unprecedented boom approaching the dimensions of a national craze, it is odd that little or no attention has been given to how effectively the sport has been written about over the past fifty years. After all, as Orwell correctly observed, prose style is the most accurate gauge we have of manners, morals, and the direction in which society seems to be going. Tennis writing is no exception to this axiom. By examining the styles of tennis writers from the 1920’s to the 1980’s, one can perceive not only the changes that have taken place in how the game is played but other matters as well, such as the impact of professionalism and egalitarianism. The prose styles of tennis writers, like those of writers on other sports, can also tell us a great deal about the quickly shifting trends in journalism, which, again, are simply a manifestation of what is happening in society at large.
Before one can approach this subject with a clear focus, it is important that the term “tennis writing” be defined. Here, a comparison with branches of literary criticism is useful. These, loosely, are biography, literary history, aesthetics (matters of performance and craft), and works on a narrow literary scene such as Gertrude Stein’s Paris. Although the labels may be different, tennis writing falls into similar categories. The difference lies in a sharper diminution of quality in form and substance as one shifts from one branch to the next. Because of this disparity, I would define a tennis writer as one who specializes in describing and analyzing tennis matches from an extensive background in tactics and stroke production. Anything else must be considered an embellishment of questionable legitimacy. In order of decreasing importance, the categories would be assessed as follows:
(1) Writers on match play. These are the aristocrats of the profession. They approach tennis with the single-mindedness and zeal of scholars and are capable of describing matches with the verbal virtuosity of poets. Allison Danzig, who covered tennis for more than a quarter of a century for The New York Times, would have to be considered the foremost member of this fraternity if only for his voluminous output. Others who certainly match Danzig in their knowledge of tennis and mastery of English prose are Al Laney, a contemporary of Danzig during the Tilden era, Herbert Warren Wind of The New Yorker, Fred Tupper, who has reported on European and British tournaments over many years for The New York Times, and Barry Lorge, one of the few contemporary tennis writers carrying on their tradition, formerly of The Washington Post and now sports editor of The Los Angeles Times. The experienced British trio of Lance Tingay, Rex Bellamy, and Richard Evans would also have to be included in this select company.
(2) Biographers and Profilers. The subject of tennis players as personalities is not a very promising one even for a talented writer. Except for volatile types such as Tilden, Gonzales, Nastase, and John McEnroe, tennis players tend to be dull, one-dimensional individuals who express themselves in platitudes. Thus, when they are written about, the approach usually takes the form of gimmickry or hyped-up prose. Some of the earlier writers such as Laney succeeded in fusing human interest with the playing of tennis, but the current profiles tend to be overloaded with the bizarre or the heavily ideological and appear, through the use of this hyperbole, to be bent on the impossible task of turning banal people, such as Chris Evert, into culture heroes. An exception to this trend would be John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, a low-key account of a series of matches between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner with emphasis on tennis as a racial leveler. Most biographies or book-length profiles of tennis players are superficial ghost-written jobs of heroworship, but Sports Illustrated writer (possibly if not probably the best writer on sports we have today) Frank Deford’s recent book on Tilden demonstrates that when the subject of a complex human being with a tragic flaw who also happens to be a tennis-playing genius is taken on by a sensitive writer, something approaching literature may result.
(3) The “scene.” The romantic ambiance of Wimbledon, Roland Garros, and Forest Hills have seduced many a writer and inspired scores of prose poems. Before the advent of Open Tennis, writing on tennis “atmosphere” bordered on the unreal. Purple patches abounded. Strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, the fans on the knoll overlooking Roland Garros became metaphors for the Age of Innocence. Of late, writing on this subject has shifted from the extreme of romantic gushiness to one of drab reality with its accompanying dull predictability. Once in a while someone does come up with an original idea on this subject. A case in point: John McPhee’s fascinating account of how the beautifully manicured grass courts at Wimbledon get that way. Trivia made significant.
(4) Technique. Since the advent of tennis in this country, practically every top-ranked player has written a “how to” book, usually in collaboration with a ghostwriter. These books contain practical advice on tactics, footwork, and how to stroke the ball, but are undistinguished in any other way. In format they constitute a mutual plagiarism society. The only classic in this category is Tilden’s Match Play and the Spin on the Ball, which Herbert Warren Wind has called “the finest book ever written by a player.”
Tennis writing, like other forms of literature, tends to reflect the changing moods of the country. Thus, over the past 60 years there have been loosely three tennis eras whose characteristics were matched by the prose styles of the men who wrote about the game. I would label these stages as The Romantic Era (roughly from 1930 to 1945), The Era of Transition (1945 to 1965), and The Era of Open Tennis (1965 to the present).
During the Romantic Era, tennis writing, by conventional standards, was filled with “purple patches,” a straining for literary effect through such devices as parallelism, imagery, and exotic figures of speech. Tennis matches became catalysts for prose poems as beautiful women provided the inspiration for brilliant sonnets in the 16th century. The great players of the day—Tilden, Cochet, Budge, Lenglen, Helen Wills—became larger-than-life heroes engaged in “epic battles.” Opponents were “antagonists” who performed with “courage” or “valor.” Strokes were “scintillating”; serves “thundered.” One writer unblushingly depicted Tilden as “striding the court like a colossus.” The chief practitioners of this effusive style were Allison Danzig, Al Laney (whose book on the era was appropriately subtitled A Fifty Year Love Affair With the Game of Tennis), Fred Hawthorne (a colleague of Danzig’s who wrote for The New York Herald Tribune), John Tunis, and A. Wallis Myers (an Englishman on the staff of the London Daily Telegraph). These men clearly formed a “school” whose characteristics were based on the premise that tennis is an aristocratic game with its own code of honor and gentlemanly manners on and off the court. If boorishness existed, it was never mentioned in print. All these men were in love with the game itself as well as with the elegant elitism which it symbolized. They wrote essentially about matches rather than personalities, and their responses were aesthetic rather than technical. They tended to regard tennis players as ballet dancers projecting rhythmic body movement in its most pleasurable form. Thus, Allison Danzig could refer to “the shimmering radiance of Rosewall’s stroke production,” and A. Wallis Myers could write of Helen Wills Moody:
There was always the smooth, even movement of the shoulders, initiated by a turn of the hips; the forcing forward of the forearm and the racket to meet the ball. Because of its neatness and fluency, its anatomical security, Mrs. Moody’s game was less exhausting and its value vindicated in the supreme crisis.
If ballet is not always adequate to match the observer’s heightened aesthetic pleasure, there is always the music of the spheres, as in this description by Lance Tingay of a Santana-Osuna Wimbledon match:
A magnificant symphony, with not a discord in it, was played out on the center court. . . . If a lob were hoisted, it raised the chalk on the baseline nine times out of ten. If a passing shot was projected, it rarely failed to be within an inch of the line. Everything flowed, and to frame the grandeur was the generous sportsmanship of both men. . . . Two sets in arrears, Santana then found his moving harmonies. . . . The artists had nothing left then but to be silent as they fell in each other’s arms in mutual congratulation. It was left to the crowd to provide the last resounding chords of the majestic symphony.
But in spite of their stylistic and temperamental excesses, writers of the Romantic School knew tennis. They were scholars of the game, and they approached it with an intensity bordering on obsessiveness. Their chief limitation was that they did not know the players and felt no need to get close to them, thus making themselves vulnerable to accusations of “Olympian detachment.”
After World War II, tennis began to change, and again the writing reflected this. It was a period of sharp social transition. F. Scott Fitzgeraldian illusions began to fall by the wayside. Professional tennis started making an impact; “amateurism” became “shamateurism”; the facade of heroism and gentility was stripped away. Tennis writers, quick to sense an impending revolution, got rid of their rose-colored glasses; the players replaced their symbolic white flannel trousers with cotton shorts. During this postwar period, Danzig and Laney were still covering tennis but with more restraint. What had onee been a grande passion now seems to have matured into a “relationship.” There is a sense that while they can never quite shake the glory days of Tilden, Cochet, and company, they are willing to face the egalitarian realities of the less elegant Kramers and Gonzaleses. Perhaps the best tennis writer to emerge in the late 40’s and 50’s was Fred Tupper, an American stationed in England who covered the European Championships and Wimbledon for The New York Times for more than 20 years. Tupper possessed not only a deep knowledge of tennis but was a superb writer as well. His descriptions of matches are masterpieces of coherence and clarity, and his leads are incomparable. Perhaps the most representative tennis writer of the postwar period was Will Grimsley of the Associated Press. Grimsley possessed a rather flat style, which fit the placid mood of the 50’s, and he was probably responsible for initiating the device of sprinkling one’s reports with quotes from the participants commenting on the quality of their play.
About the mid-60’s the game experienced the most profound upheaval in its history with the widespread acceptance of “Open tennis.” After a long struggle, the myth of amateurism was laid to rest, and the sport became one huge scramble for prize money rather than “glory” or “the challenge cup.” At the same time changes were beginning to take place in the way not only tennis but all sports were being written about. Coinciding with the spread of a counterculture among youth, there emerged a breed of “Young Turks” who were determined to wipe out once and for all any vestiges of the illusory in sports writing. A roster of the tennis writing branch of this new fraternity, most of whom were in their twenties or early thirties, would have to include: Jeff Prugh, Barry Lorge, Joe Jares, Neil Amdur, Bud Collins,* and Mike Lupica. While these writers did not meet regularly in a clubhouse to discuss ways to depart from their predecessors, they do share certain habits of attitude and style which form an unofficial credo. A tabulated contrast with the “old school” might fall into this pattern:
Old School New School
Coverage restricted to Minimize match coverage.
matches, with emphasis on More emphasis on the “scene,”
stroke production and personality, reaction of
tactics. participants to their
Approach to tennis idealistic. Approach to tennis realistic,
Tended to regard game as at times cynical. Not
pure art form, players as hesitant to explore shabby
gods and heroes. Little behavior, wheeling and
interest in institutional dealing, political infighting.
aspects of tennis.
Possess scholarly knowledge Many admittedly not authorities
of tennis. Devote full on the game. Cover tennis
time to writing about it. as part of general sports writing
Writing style characterized Writing style simple,
by many literary flourishes direct. Has no particular
and poetic figures of tone or cadence. Sentences
speech. Sentences long and short, to the point.
developed with a deliberate
Accounts of matches have Accounts of matches have no
beginning, middle, and end. visible pattern.
Jeff Prugh, one of the most astute observers of current tennis, commented in a letter to me: “The so-called “romantic” school is giving way to an approach that tries to humanize athletes and grapples with realities that are really no different from those of the rest of society.” Prugh continues, “We must now take the reader backstage and report all those factors— many of them intangible—that caused an event to happen the way it did. The tennis player’s style. His demeanor. His interaction with the crowd. His strategy. His manner—afterward—how he accepts and explains his performance. These are elements which TV, more often than not, cannot portray. As a result, the writer’s job has become as much interpretive as reportorial.” Prugh concludes, “The younger tennis writers seem to take a more insightful, inquisitive approach to their craft, rather than merely reporting aces, deuces, and loves and romanticizing the winner.”
One problem that Prugh neglected to mention is that in their determination to “humanize” tennis players these young writers often reduce their coverage to a mere sequence of quoted banalities from the participants. If the players were insightful and articulate individuals, perhaps this method would work; but, more often than not, their efforts at self-examination come across as computer print-outs for handy use during post-mortem interviews. Thus, there is The Humble Confession (“I was never able to put pressure on Jimmy because he kept the pressure on me.” ), The Naked Alibi (“It was tough for me to get psyched up, playing only six matches in the last two weeks. That really hurt me on the big points. I just fluffed it.” ), The Balanced Put-Down (“It was more my poor play. I really don’t think he played that well.” )
After wading through scores of reports sprinkled with these dreary stock responses, one begins to wish that the writers would get out of the interview room, return to the press box, and rely on their own perceptions which must be more acute than those of the people whom they are covering.
The leading practitioner of this player-centered approach to tennis is Bud Collins of The Boston Globe, whose excesses have prompted his critics to employ such epithets as “cutesypoo,” “cutesy-pie,” or just plain “cute.” Translated into standard English this means simply that Collins’ writing is gimmicky and self-consciously “clever” like the themes of a college freshman who is straining to impress his English instructor. Typical is this passage on Rod Laver:
Rodney the L is what’s happening in tennis these days. He goes into the Longwood veldt this afternoon to resume a raindelayed pursuit of another professional singles championship, and if he wore a top hat you’d think he was Mandrake the Magician. Instead he’ll be wearing a crinkled white cloche that looks as though a flapper had slept in it. It was probably willed to him by Clara Bow, but it does the job. . . . His eyes seem like a pair of blueberries in a tureen of borscht.
Here we can observe most of the literary offenses not only of Collins but of an entire cult of contemporary sportswriters—the pretentions to hipness (“Rodney the L is what’s happening”), “cute” diction (“veldt,” “cloche”), bizarre similes (“His eyes seem like a pair of blueberries in a tureen of borscht.” ), and obligatory allusions to pop culture (Mandrake the Magician, Clara Bow). What makes this passage embarrassingly bad is that the diction and tone obviously have little relationship to the subject. Undeterred by Laver’s wellknown lack of charisma off the court, the author simply injected some personality into Rod’s tennis hat.
In all fairness to the current crop of tennis writers, it must be said that their emphasis on what the Old School would consider irrelevancies has been conditioned by the pervasive television coverage of championship matches. The problem is that in going “backstage” the writers fall into the trap of trying to compete with a visual medium with what has been popularly termed “hype,” characterized by verbal overkill and a kind of psychedelic shotgun pattern of organization. In contrast, the British counterparts of the Americans write as though television never existed and tend to cover tennis matches in overripe diction and sentences of measured cadence. The Americans, for the most part, find this approach strained and too preciously literary. Frank Deford, for example, after a two-week stint of reading Rex Bellamy of the London Times, told me, “Two weeks of him left me stuffed. Just too many metaphors and similes to the point of being forced. It is a shame he tries so hard because he needn’t to.” And Joe Jares, Deford’s colleague on Sports Illustrated, opened his piece on the Ashe-Connors 1975 Wimbledon final with a blast at British tennis writers:
Every Wimbledon fortnight the sports pages of London’s newspapers, from the most lurid fish wraps and garbage-pail liner right up to the weighty Times and Guardian, bristle with examples of the hyperbolic school of sports writing. Passing shots become, for example, “genuine pearls, but not strung sufficiently together to make the desired necklace.” A Wimbledon champion, wrote a Fleet Street sage, “is acknowledged as being tempered with steel from the most fiery furnace.” In the fertile minds of London’s pressbox poets, matches are likely to be transformed into sword fights, ballets, or Shakespearean tragedies.
While Jares has characterized some of the excesses of the British writers accurately, one senses here a certain defensiveness, which is understandable when one considers that the British writers, unlike the Americans, work at their job full time and cover all the European and American championships. They thus have the time to absorb the tennis scene and acquaint themselves with the styles of all the leading players. Then, too, the British writers are allowed a great deal of leeway by their editors to cultivate a style and a “voice.” Most of the Americans, on the other hand, either through timidity or editorial restriction, tend to express themselves in a kind of flat, bare-bones journalese which comes across as an antiliterary stance. Obviously some middle ground between these two extremes would be desirable, and that balance, according to Frank Deford, has been achieved by Richard Evans, who “has the British literacy and expertise, but he has combined that with the American penchant for color and background.”
To return to Orwell’s axiom that a close examination of public prose can be a socially useful exercise, we can see that in a limited way the same principle can be applied to tennis writing over the past 60 years. Below are four passages, written in four different decades, which demonstrate how our attitudes toward tennis, toward language, and toward ourselves changed from about 1925 to 1975. Comments will follow the passages:
(1) A gallery of 14,000 spectators. . . looked down upon this terrific struggle, and at the end it knew that it had been privileged to see one of the most ennobling fights a former champion ever made to regain his crown, Tilden, in the years of his most ruthless sway, was never a more majestic figure, never played more upon the heartstrings of a gallery than he did yesterday as he gave the last ounce of his superb physique to break through a defense that was as enduring as rock, and failed; he failed because youth stood in the balance against him—youth in the person of an untiring sphinx that was as deadly as fate in the uncanny perfection of his control, who assimilated the giant Tilden’s murderous swipes and cannonball serves as though they were mere pat balls and who made such incredible saves as to have broken the spirit on nine men out of ten.
Allison Danzig on Lacoste
vs. Tilden, U. S. Championship,
(2) Little Mo took the first set just as she had been expected to do, purposefully and ruthlessly in eighteen minutes. There was scarcely a chink in her armor. She was firing her ground strokes for the corners, and as Louise raced from side to side retrieving, she would increase the pace and put the ball firmly away. . . . Then came the deluge. Clenching her fists and muttering her own private words of encouragement, Maureen started to hit out. She produced the big shot on nearly every shot, the scorching backhand across court and the flat forehand down the line. Louise was back to the treadmill again, scampering all over the court in an increasingly hopeless attempt to retrieve. . . . Maureen was dead on target, each shot a bullseye. Against such cannonading, all resistance collapsed.
Fred Tupper on the Marueen
Wimbledon final, 1954
(3) Connors brought back memories of the game’s immortals such as Big Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver as he destroyed the rhythm of one of the sport’s great shotmakers and turned the match into a rout.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Connors said.
“He is a killer,” said the youngster’s longtime coach Pancho Segura.
Rosewall, a strong sentimental favorite after dramatic victories over John Newcombe and Stan Smith, said he lacked the tools.
“He hit every line on the court,” Rosewall said. “He scrambled for every ball. He made all the right moves. He never hit a soft shot.” Associated Press account of Connors/Rosewall Wimbledon final, 1974.
Stan Smith called his wife’s name as he began to move away from the entrance to the All-England Club’s main clubhouse, already surrounded by a swarm of reporters seeking quotes and schoolgirls begging autographs.
“Marjie,” Smith called to her one more time over his shoulder, moving more quickly now, heading towards the lot where his English Ford Pinto was parked. “I’ll meet you at the car.”
Stan Smith did not want to talk to reporters, he did not want to write his name on pieces of paper. He wanted to be far away from the All-England Club. His day was over. His Wimbledon was over.
Mike Lupica on Stan Smith’s
first round defeat by Byron
Bertram, Wimbledon, 1975
Here is what the above four passages seem to tell us about changing attitudes towards sports and English usage:
(1) One might be tempted to dismiss this sample as an unintentional parody of Stover at Yale until he realizes that the author is merely reflecting the romanticism of the times. Expressions like “struggle,” “ennobling,” “majestic,” “crown,” and the long periodic sentences with their measured cadence evoke an atmosphere of tennis as a kind of Camelot. Winning is not what counts; it is how you play the game. The struggle is all.
(2) Written more than a quarter of a century after Passage 1, it is apparent that style has become tempered by reality. We are in the Placid Fifties. There are no larger-than-life heroes. Efficiency is what counts. Befitting the times, there is a kind of middle ground here between the romantic excesses of the 20’s and the narcissism of the 60’s and 70’s. What counts in a tennis player is maximum use of one’s talent to win matches. Like the player it is describing, the writer is in perfect control of his medium. The writing is dead on target, every verbal shot a bullseye.
(3) Here insight has been replaced by banality and triteness. The writer has shirked his responsibility. The quoted cliches add nothing to our understanding of the match and succeed only in creating an illusion of sharp perception. Unlike the authors of the first two passages, this writer has no awareness of the importance of aesthetic distance. Perhaps he was overimpressed with an editor’s advice to “get close to the action” and “talk to people.” The content of this passage seems to be dictated by an axiom of the media-conscious 70’s: It’s not what is said that counts. It’s who says it.
(4) This could pass as a sophomoric attempt at fictional prose. Actually, it represents the new wave in tennis writing. The idea is to get inside the player’s head rather than describe his performance on the court. The carefully timed “dialogue” and the alliterative sentence structure act as a facade to cover the banality of the actual situation that is being described. In its tone the passage smacks of fakery and hoked-up “drama.” It is trendy “New Journalism” with a touch of soap opera. Tennis writing could not get any further away from what it was intended to be.
One of the greatest challenges for tennis writers emerged from the 1975 Wimbledon final between Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. While the contest did not produce spectacular tennis, it was tactically fascinating. Ashe, being in the position of challenger, devised the following plan, which he
worked out with Donald Dell and withheld from the press until the match was over:
Throw off Connors” rhythm by employing a variety of unconventional shots—chips, lobs, “dinks.” Concentrate on getting a large percentage of first serves in. Slice the serve deep and wide to Connors’ backhand. Try to overcome a serious weakness—the forehand volley. Return Connors’ serve with low bouncing chip shots. Do not let the match become a slugfest.
Throw off Connors” rhythm by employing a variety of unconventional shots—chips, lobs, “dinks.”
Concentrate on getting a large percentage of first serves in.
Slice the serve deep and wide to Connors’ backhand.
Try to overcome a serious weakness—the forehand volley.
Return Connors’ serve with low bouncing chip shots.
Do not let the match become a slugfest.
How well and how precisely the pattern of this unusual match, which followed Ashe’s game plan to the letter, was communicated in print can be determined by examining what six writers—three American and three British—reported, in part, to their respective papers.
Tupper: Ashe confounded him (Connors). He threw junk at Jimmy, he chipped and dinked, mostly to the backhand. He tossed up lobs. He served solidly all the way through and his forehand volley, admittedly his weakness, was a tower of strength at the infighting around the net.
Collins: Ashe just went after him (Connors) brilliantly and patiently, using Connors’ lickety-split pace to his own advantage to block winning volleys. Arthur showed Connors’ two-handed backhand to be vulnerable to a heavily sliced serve from the right court. . . . Instead of suicidally trying to slug with the kid, Ashe, chipping his returns, forehanding chops and chips, kept the ball low on the grass. Arthur seldom muscled the ball to give Jimmy the pace he loves.
Large: Ashe today played a controlled temperate game. He mixed an assortment of junk—chips, lobs, dinks arid off-pace shots of all varieties—with his powerful serves, volleys and overhead smashes. . . . He got his first serve in consistently— deep, with lots of spin or slice—and opened up the court for his first volleys by serving wide to Connors’ two-fisted backhand. His volleying was perhaps the sharpest it has been for a whole match. . . . Ashe chipped effectively throughout the match, especially to Connors’ backhand. . . . Connors netted many scoops off short low shots and frequently overhit approach shots.
According to classic standards of tennis writing, one would have to say that of these three, Lorge should get the gold medal. While all three observers touch upon the essential matter of Ashe’s tactics, Lorge offers the most complete and most precisely detailed picture. Tupper, perhaps in striving too hard for conciseness, left out the key factor of Ashe’s slice serve to Connors’ backhand. Collins is fairly good on details, but the writing is marred by awkward phrasing and a poor choice of verbs. (One doesn’t forehand chips and chops and muscle tennis balls. ) While none of the above passages is distinguished in style, Lorge, it would have to be said, comes the closest to combining the essentials of first-rate writing— an interesting controlling idea, an abundance and variety of impressive details to support the idea, and the whole put together in a readable, coherent form.
The three British writers—David Gray, Rex Bellamy, and Henry Raven, covering the same event:
Gray: He (Ashe) approached it almost as though he was going to play Connors at chess with a strategy deeply considered and carefully rehearsed. The . . .strategy was plain: Nothing to hit; variations of speed; a great deal of awkward slice; lobs in plenty; fine smashes to counter Connors’ lobs; volleying, . . . The lawn tennis thinker was in total intellectual control. Hamlet has spotted Laertes, was thrusting the poisoned cup down the king’s throat and winning envenomed points everywhere. . . . The odds-on favorite was lobbed, dinked, teased, passed, out-rallied, and frustrated.
Bellamy; He (Ashe) teased Connors with chips and lobs. He gave him a lot of “junk” balls. . . . His length was superb. All was measured, calculated, unhurried. During the changeovers Ashe relaxed utterly; so still that he might have been in a trance. His self-discipline was total.
Raven: Yesterday he (Ashe) gained one of the most impressive tactical victories that Wimbledon has seen for many years. He contained Connors astutely, seldom allowing the speed that he likes, varying the pace, lobbing more than anyone ever remembered Ashe lob before, and using slice shrewdly to the younger player’s double-handed backhand. . . . He was always making Connors stretch and commit himself. . . . It was an intellectual victory. Ashe. . . .outwitted him, dictating the pattern of play, never allowed him to gallop away with games with his usual noisy, exuberant, extrovert fashion.
Here we must take note of two aspects in which the British writers are clearly superior to the Americans: They freely characterize Ashe’s victory as an “intellectual” one. (No American writer would ever admit that a championship was won by brains rather than power. ) Then, too, in each of the British pieces we can detect a distinct “voice” in contrast to the somewhat tone-deaf American prose. It seems quite obvious that, in covering the gamut of strategy, both Gray and Raven display great tennis savvy. Of the two, I find Gray’s sample too pretentiously literary with its variations on sentence cadence and parallelism and its far-fetched allusion to the Hamlet-Laertes duel, whereas Raven’s approach has a directness and plainness appropriate to the subject. Bellamy, like Tupper, cut himself short on this one.
Of these six writers Lorge, I think, displayed the keenest grasp of the pattern of the match, Gray the best sense of Ashe’s intellectual preparation, and Raven the greatest talent for pleasantly harmonizing style and substance.
But in one sense these six examples of contemporary tennis writing are misleading, for each consumes a very small part of the reports from which each was taken. Most of the space was taken up with such extraneous matters as a libel suit that Connors had brought against Ashe, the fact that Ashe had gambled the previous evening at a Playboy club, the significance of Ashe’s holding up a fist at the end of the match, his dancing with Billie Jean King at the traditional Wimbledon Ball, etc. It is all part of a trend in tennis writing—and in nearly all sportswriting for that matter—to play down the nuances of tactics and form and to play up the histrionics on the fringes: in short, to opt for a visceral rather than an intellectual or aesthetic response.
Tennis has passed through many stages over the past 60 years, and in some ways the quality of play has improved. Yet at the same time one cannot help but conclude that, as the sport has moved in the direction of professionalism and higher and higher stakes, there has been a corresponding decline in the prose of those who write about the game. There is a basic lack of toughness and expertise and too easy a willingness for the writers to be seduced by the frivolous, the superficial, and the titillating, as witness the massive over-coverage of John McEnroe’s “tantrums” during the 1981 Wimbledon tournament. And not surprisingly these are the same offenses that have afflicted most forms of public discourse, including reporting and criticism. “Hype” seems to be the order of the day, and the end is not in sight.
* Although Collins is a generation removed from this group, he is included because of a temperamental kinship with them which is reflected in his writing.