Tennis has always been – beneath the flannelled pomp – an outsiders’ sport. For all the glamour of its major stars, the A-list oligarchy of Roger–Rafa–Novak, it remains in a small but vital way a sport liked by people who don’t necessarily like sport. And not just liked, but pored over, cherished, meditated upon and generally engaged with in a way that seems distinct from the more garrulous engagements with other mass spectator sports. It isn’t hard to see why. Tennis is a strangely intimate spectacle. At times it can resemble less a display of athletic excellence than a revelation of personality, glimpsed through the familiar repartee of serve, rally, volley, drop shot, winner. Then there is that touchingly stark on-court isolation. No other sport presents its players so nakedly to the world, alone in all that space, surrounded only by ball-grabbers and towel-handlers, engaged in the most mannered of arm’s-length emotional wrestling matches. Little wonder it is so easy to identify rather too closely with a tennis player, to imagine those distant professional athletes as warriors, victims, heroes, friends and general objects of private obsession.
Love Game by Elizabeth Wilson is not ostensibly about tennis obsession, but it is about tennis as seen through the eyes of that surprisingly common figure lurking high up in the bleachers: the highbrow tennis obsessive. It is a fascinating book, too, a sensual-social-political history of the sport from its medieval origins to the corporate juggernaut that is the modern professional tour. For Wilson tennis is more than simply a sport. It is an object or even an embodiment of desire. And not just in the obvious sense that tennis, with its grunts and gasps, has always seemed to be a little bit about sex (you can tell it’s about sex because the English spend most of Wimbledon tittering and giggling), but also in the more refined and personal way in which it is a kind of sporting burlesque. ‘In no other sport than tennis has the relationship of players and spectators, the game and its followers, been so often discussed in terms of romantic love,’ Wilson writes. Is this true? It is enough that Wilson thinks it is, and that tennis can inspire such evangelical ardour, not to mention a book such as this, written with great passion and the skewed and piercing insight of an expert outsider.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about Wilson in this context is that she isn’t a sports writer but rather an academic, a novelist and a highbrow cultural commentator, with a track record that includes lectures on opera, assorted studies in gender politics and – that familiar tennis hack’s staple – a five-year stint as senior lecturer in social policy and professor of cultural studies at the University of North London. As a result, and for all its passions, Love Game has the structure, and at times the language, of an academic text. It starts by taking us back to Victorian England and the founding boom times of mass spectator sport, and beyond that into the deep history of tennis as a royal game. In this chapter Wilson sets the emotional pitch unapologetically high, sustaining a fevered level of excitement while discussing the mildly unusual tennis scoring system (‘poetic … courtly and monastic … intensely contemporary – indeed postmodern’).
This is an illuminating history full of nuggety detail and a broader tale passionately told. Wilson gives tennis everything she’s got – and she clearly has a lot – but at times you wish she’d been willing to give in to the lure of a less rigorously comprehensive history. There are moments when you just want her to tell you a story or two, which is, after all, what sport does so well. At one point the reader is introduced to Anthony Wilding, a New Zealander ‘who perfectly embodied the manly sporting ideal’ in the social whirl of Victorian tennis: an ‘Adonis of the court’ whose defeats left his female fans in tears. But the chapter ends abruptly and that’s all you hear of Wilding.
Perhaps Wilson is trying too hard not to be a sports writer. ‘The contemporary conventional sporting perspective is in itself a kind of tunnel vision,’ she writes. ‘A more expansive, cultural viewpoint may provide a better appreciation of the “game of love”.’ This is true. Sports journalists offering the ‘contemporary conventional sporting perspective’ often fall into well-grooved habits, a confection of cliché and laziness. But journalism also involves a set of skills, some of which are missing here.
For example, Wilson is excellent on the rise of the women’s game, particularly in a fascinating passage on the great Suzanne Lenglen. Later, though, confronted with the alluringly potent figure of Billie Jean King, she simply comes up short. We get the stories. But where’s Billie Jean? Why don’t we get to hear what she thinks? ‘Her relationship with feminism was very important’; ‘Her reluctance to be openly lesbian can be understood as…’ Maybe. And maybe not. Frankly, Wilson’s guess is good as anyone else’s here. There are many advantages to the de-journalised eye on sport, but my journo’s instinct suggests this would be twice the book – and it is already a considerable book – with the addition of a few other voices. But then, this feels like a carp over methodology. Elizabeth Wilson intended instead to give us this, a richly textured history distilled through an illuminating private passion.