Tennis is best played with a wooden racket on a shady lawn somewhere close to Dorking. There is no need for trainers, an umpire, or a scoreboard. No need for rules at all. After Wimbledon, the tea-and-jam, grass-stained, Sunday-afternoon scenario from A Room with a View is the only one to emulate.
In 1908, when E.M. Forster published his novel, lawn tennis was not yet 50 years old. Although the origins of the game reach back to the 12th century, the version played by Miss Honeychurch and Reverend Beebe and most of us today was said to have been pioneered on a croquet lawn in Edgbaston in 1859. It was patented 15 years later by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Welshman, originally under the not-so-catchy name of ‘sphairistike’ (from the ancient Greek for a skilled ball-player).
Distinct from the handball of medieval times and the ‘real tennis’ enjoyed by Henry VIII, the modern game appealed to both men and women. The romance of dainty-waisted ladies squaring up to men in tennis whites was not lost on the Victorian and Edwardian painters, whose fascination with the subject has been revived repeatedly throughout the past century and a half.
Whether she is drowning in fabric or sporting a skimpy dress, a female tennis player always cuts a seductive figure. In 1885, the Irish portraitist Sir John Lavery painted ‘The Tennis Party’, featuring a vigorous match of mixed doubles on an elegant gated lawn. One of the women goes for the ball, gently gathering her skirts and bending against the curve of her corset as she does so. You can well believe she is wearing more than four kilograms of material — the typical weight of 19th-century women’s tennis clothes. For all their coverings, Lavery’s women are astonishingly sexy. It isn’t too much of a leap from the busty player of Lavery’s ‘Played!’ to Martin Elliott’s iconic ‘Tennis Girl’, photographed in Edgbaston in 1976, racket in one hand, buttock as round as a tennis ball in the other, evening light illuminating the gap between her thighs.
Nabokov wrote of the ‘indescribable itch of rapture’ that can come from watching a woman play tennis. His Lolita has none of the insouciance of Tennis Girl. She is awkward and cack-handed and would ‘slash at the ball and miss it, and curse, and send a simulacrum of a serve into the net’. Her young opponent would be ‘even more insipid’, rushing after the ball to no effect and joining Lolita in keeping score of ‘their ineptitudes’. Lolita’s struggle only makes her more captivating. Tennis remains perhaps the only sport in which incompetence is more endearing than talent.
This is why the most successful tennis paintings tend to feature amateurs rather than professionals. Eric Ravilious, himself a keen tennis player, seems more at ease in his triptych of a friendly game in the park than in his design ‘On a Grand Theme for Sport’ for the British Pavilion of the Paris International Exhibition of 1937. The four players in his jolly park scene prance about like ragdolls exercising muscleless limbs.
One of the joys of looking at tennis paintings is that, no matter how many players are shown on court, there is only one that matters. As David Foster Wallace put it in Infinite Jest, ‘The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.’ For the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant, the idea of meeting oneself in a court dance proved utterly tantalizing. His gouache ‘Tennis Player’ (now in the Courtauld) from 1913 is alone, confined by the tramlines on one side of a clay court, preparing to hit the ball to an opponent we cannot see. As he stretches, he raises one leg and extends the other until he is on pointe.
The same year saw the première in Paris of Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet Jeux, constructed around the theme of a lost tennis ball. Some see the influence of Grant’s game in its set and choreography; Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer, and Léon Bakst, the stage designer, had stumbled upon the young artist playing tennis amid the tall trees of Bedford Square the previous summer. Debussy wrote the score, as exquisite and dynamic in its composition as any Wimbledon final, one idea bouncing off another like the errant ball upon the stage.
Sound is such an essential element of the game that even visual artists have sought to incorporate it into their work. In 1966, Robert Rauschenberg arranged his ‘Open Score’ at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. The artist filmed a match between two players, who had little radio transmitters fitted to their rackets. As they struck the ball, the sound echoed through the auditorium and turned off light after light, leaving the spectators in the dark. It is eerie. Watching it, you can well understand why tennis held such appeal for Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder. A sport as pleasant as tennis is easy to hide behind. Its genteel aesthetic conceals the ruthlessness at its heart.
For all the prettiness of the paintings and compositions it has inspired, tennis is just that, ruthless. It is a gladiatorial combat lathered in strawberries and cream. What struck me most as a child growing up in Wimbledon was how contagious the aggression of the competition could be. I used to watch the queues form every June in the roads surrounding the tennis club. At first they were orderly. Then came the tents and the rain and the struggles to clear the pavements of ardent fans. We seldom joined them since the championships were so close. Instead there were the tennis parties, a modern twist on the 19th-century Lavery classic, where the dads proceeded from the barbeque to the lawn to compare their Sampras serves. I learned then that lawn tennis is better served with tea.
As the temperature rises, swap point-scoring for a Ravilious rally or an E.M. Forster version of bumble-puppy, ‘an ancient and most honourable game, which consists in striking tennis-balls high into the air, so that they fall over the net and immoderately bounce’. It is far less enervating than the real thing.