Headline hitters - catch up in lockdown on classic tennis journalism
There are some great books about tennis, but often equally memorable are the shorter pieces of journalism and essay writing featuring the game. Here's our selection of some of the best.
Roger Federer as Religious Experience
By David Foster Wallace, 2006
"Wallace took the conventions of sports profile writing, upended them, and redefined what the athlete profile can accomplish," says fellow sports writer Erik Skeaff. Even if Wallace was later criticised for embellishing what he saw, this is, by some stretch, the most celebrated piece of tennis journalism of recent times and many consider Wallace the greatest tennis writer of them all. Federer has achieved so much (especially in the years after this profile was written) it may seem impertinent to suggest his reputation owes anything to this profile. But it did help set the frame for how we see him. Wallace, who suffered from depression, sadly took his own life a couple of years after writing this piece.
The New York Times
Tennis, my beautiful game, Martin Amis, 2009
"Tennis: the most perfect combination of athleticism, artistry, power, style, and wit. A beautiful game, but one so remorselessly
travestied by the passage of time," writes one of our greatest novelists in this personal account of the frustrations of declining skills. Amis loves tennis, and his writings on the pro-game for the New Yorker have been regular highlights over the years. This wistful piece, written for The Guardian, may well strike a chord for players of a certain age.
Reproduced at MartinAmisWeb
THE SORRY STATE OF TENNIS (IS TENNIS DYING), SALLY JENKINS, 1994
Few sports suffer as much as tennis from the seasonal demands of editors, and this Sports Illustrated piece does have the whiff of another written-to-order commission to celebrate the start of the season. That said, it is a fascinating account of tennis just before it went through one of its pretty regular (and timely) re-imaginings. "Tennis is spoiled rotten," Jenkins begins. "If you are wondering exactly when a wonderful game became such a lousy sport, the answer is, the first time a corporate executive gave a 14-year-old a stretch limo to play with." As a demolition job on a flabby, "spoilt" sport whose players appeared to have stopped caring, it takes some beating. It didn't of course prove to be an accurate predictor of what was to come, but that is hardly the point. Jenkins continues to write about tennis and other sports for The Washington Post and has done a brilliant job calling out the racism and sexism that is often directed at Serena Williams in particular.
Reports of my death: "My dream of being Roger Federer", Clive James 2016
The late, much-lamented Clive James was a real friend to tennis. With wit, a poetic sensibility, and great humanity he returned to the subject again and again. His Observer TV reviews, for example, had laugh-out-loud accounts of players (Jimmy Connors “has taken to grunting loudly at the instant of hitting the ball instead of just afterwards. Confused opponents try to hit the grunt instead of the ball.”) He knew his worth too, once devoting a whole essay to the dismantling of a single sentence in a tennis correspondent's cliched account of a Tim Henman match. This wistful piece, written late in his career, is a little jewel to remember him by, and an example of how to write about sport with originality. "Deprived by time and circumstances of almost all my strength, I find that my daydreams of being a Wimbledon singles champion divide into two kinds: real and unreal..." Now read on.
“Jimmy Connors at the US Open, First Hate, Then Love”, Joel Druker, 2018
Joel Drucker, one of the most notable tennis US tennis journalists of our time is also "historian-at-large" for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This piece encompasses much of what has happened in the game on his watch, and neatly encapsulates his tennis story which has long been tied up with Jimmy Connors (for more, read his book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life: A Personal Biography). This article was written for Racquet Magazine, a very beautiful tennis micro-magazine, and the New York Times. This should give a flavour:
"Connors won the first two sets, then trailed by 5-1 in the third. McEnroe held two set points, but Connors fought them off and then got back on serve at 4-5. On the changeover after he’d earned that break, Connors took a swig of water, rinsed it in his mouth — and spat it at McEnroe’s feet. Connors won the set, 7-5, and the match."
The New York Times
The most beautiful game, Geoff Dyer, 2011
UK writer Geoff Dyer's piece for Prospect Magazine and its companion piece from the same year by author Lionel Shriver are both great reads for players who want confirmation that, despite the frustrations, tennis is the most rewarding past time on earth. For example, take Dyer on the Pro in us all: "But here’s the thing, here’s the lovely covenant of tennis: despite the huge gulf between them and us, everything that happens to the top players during a Grand Slam match is replicated by an average player in a park."
Prospect, Geoff Dyer, Lionel Shriver