When tennis (along with golf) was granted an early release from lockdown last month, it prompted a few outraged mutterings. How typical of Boris, our tennis-playing prime minister, to favour a sport played overwhelmingly by his own kind. In theory, it’s not quite as simple as that: you don’t need to be well-heeled to play tennis in Britain. The country has thousands of public courts, which are either free, or very cheap, to use. Balls and rackets aren’t that expensive. Yet the perception remains, in the UK and elsewhere, that tennis is a sport for the few not the many.
It is associated with sealed-off private spaces, with posh people in pressed white linen, with codes of etiquette (and tricky techniques) that take a lifetime to master. And whereas tennis clubs across the country welcomed their members back with alacrity, I have found it striking, walking around the town where I live these past few weeks, to see many public courts remaining padlocked. Middle England may be excitedly dusting off its tennis gear – albeit in preparation for a Wimbledon-free summer – but that hasn’t always been possible for the rest of the country.
David Berry’s engaging and thoughtful book sets out to show that tennis doesn’t deserve its elitist reputation. “Underneath its establishment image,” he writes, “tennis is a surprisingly radical game.” He isn’t the first author to make such a claim. In her quirky 2014 book Love Game, the cultural historian Elizabeth Wilson attempted to prove that tennis is inherently subversive and “romantic”. Hers was an argument rooted in aesthetics: she stressed the sport’s visual similarity to dance, and suggested that it has an “erotic” undertow. Berry, a former TV producer, adopts a different approach. For him, the radicalism of tennis has less to do with the feelings it inspires than with the ways in which it has functioned, over the years, as a fulcrum for various social forces, quite a few of which have been progressive.
The most basic observation Berry makes is that tennis has often appealed to mavericks and misfits. This was especially the case in its early decades. The sport’s first great populariser, Major Walter Wingfield, was an oddball Victorian inventor who, prior to launching his portable lawn tennis sets in 1873, unleashed a series of other products on the public, among them “a butterfly bicycle, a smoking mixture and a French cookery school”. All, Berry writes, were “a little ahead of their time”. Four years later, the first Wimbledon took place: its referee was a former doctor, who would parade around the grounds wearing white flannel trousers and a white helmet, smoking Turkish cigarettes and dispensing opinions “on everything”.
Though initially played in grand country houses, tennis soon migrated to cities and towns, where it appealed to middle-class people of an “intellectual and artistic” bent. It was also popular among men of the cloth, and indeed the third Wimbledon was won by the Rev John Thorneycroft Hartley – the only vicar ever to lift the title. Such men were attracted to tennis, Berry suggests, largely because it released them from the stifling masculine codes of the day. On court, men could be more expressive than normal. This, I think, remains true today: “manly” men rarely have much time for tennis.
Tennis was of course also played by women – and that truly was a radical departure. Victorian women could cycle and play croquet, but they were largely excluded from other sports: rugby, cricket, football, golf. There was a brief attempt, in the 1880s, to shut them out of tennis too, but it was quickly rebuffed. One reason, interestingly, seems to have been a specific kind of self-interest on the part of male players: because tennis was considered an effeminate sport, it suited them to have women at clubs, to help allay suspicions about their sexuality.
If tennis attracted effeminate men, it also drew masculine women – or at any rate those inclined to rebel against the constraints of Victorian femininity. To play tennis well, women had to be more athletic than was considered decorous, and also had to abandon – or at least modify – the standard mid-Victorian sporting uniform of whale-bone corsets, petticoats and aprons, and ankle-high leather boots. As Berry points out, the early female tennis players weren’t so much radical by nature as radicalised through the act of devoting themselves to sport. The most remarkable figure of this generation was Lottie Dod, who won her first Wimbledon title in 1887, aged 15, and went on to win it four more times before retiring aged 21. She subsequently represented England at hockey, archery, and later volunteered for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war.
Since then, tennis certainly hasn’t been devoid of sexism. Female players have had to get used to the inordinate attention paid to their looks – a trend that really got going in the 1920s with the appearance of the game’s first female superstar, Suzanne Lenglen, another outsized character who would suck brandy-soaked sugar cubes between points, and received admirers in the bath following her victories. And tennis dragged its heels for too long on the issue of equal remuneration, only finally switching to it, in all four Grand Slam events, in 2007. Still, compared with other sports, it looks like a bastion of sexual equality. No other sport has consistently produced global stars of both sexes, and it is by far the most lucrative sport women play. (The top 10 highest paid female athletes in the world last year were all tennis players.) One plank of Berry’s argument is resoundingly correct: tennis has often been a force for women’s advancement.
Yet problems emerge when he broadens his argument. Because his aim is to prove that tennis is a sport of the “people”, he also tries to demonstrate that its non-elitism extends to other areas besides gender. And here he faces a much sterner challenge. The plain truth is that on issues such as class and race, tennis’s reputation for elitism is deserved: its record has been pretty shoddy. In chapters dealing with working-class and ethnic minority participation, Berry strives to show that the sport has been less monocultural than is assumed. In the interwar years, for example, tennis was briefly adopted by the Labour movement: several socialist tennis clubs were set up, as was a “Workers’ Wimbledon”. He also tells the story of a scheme in north London in the 1960s and 70s to produce a champion from among the city’s black kids.
Such things are interesting to read about, but the fact of their existence is not proof of their importance. I am sceptical of Berry’s claim that his book reveals a “hidden history” of tennis. Most of the progressive trends he highlights didn’t amount to much. After the war, “socialist tennis” petered out, and a black player of note still hasn’t emerged from Britain’s inner cities. Britain’s most successful ever black player is the current world No 50, Heather Watson – whose advancement up the tennis ladder, Berry points out, was assisted by having a millionaire father.
Berry concludes his book with a discussion of tennis clubs. Having stopped playing the sport in early adulthood, he took it up again in middle age, and joined a club in north London. The experience, he says, was revelatory, and made him realise that tennis clubs have fundamentally changed. From being redoubts of exclusion and social climbing, they have mutated into places where the capitalist world is “kept at a distance”, where what people do in the wider world is entirely unimportant: “Status is earned over months and years either on court, by helping run the club or by sheer character.” It isn’t, perhaps, altogether surprising that a leftie like Berry should find a north London tennis club so congenial. Nonetheless, I know what he means: at the two tennis clubs I’ve been a member of as an adult, one in south-east London and one in Kent, I’ve encountered exactly the same non-judgmental culture. Yet it remains the case that the kind of refuge these clubs provide is only available to a small portion of the population. Here, as elsewhere, Berry seems a little too eager to present tennis as a “progressive” sport.
• William Skidelsky’s Federer and Me is published by Yellow Jersey. A People’s History of Tennis by David Berry is published by Pluto (RRP £14.99).