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What's The Story? Compelling On Court, Tennis Fails To Impress On Screen


Photo: Paramount Pictures By Joel Drucker
06/16/2003

The Strand Bookstore in Manhattan is a book-lover’s paradise. Zero in on the sports book section and you’ll find hundreds of titles new and old. Unfortunately, tennis aficionados will leave depressed. The Strand’s shelf of tennis books is a scant 3 feet wide and includes no masterpieces, known or undiscovered.

One would think a sport as based in individualism as tennis would lend itself to a massive body of work. "The game is so elemental," says Jay Jennings, editor of "Tennis and the Meaning of Life: A Literary Anthology of the Game." "Like boxing, it’s one-on-one. It’s a sport that reveals a lot about a person." As John McPhee notes in "Levels of the Game," one of the few great tennis books, "A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play." Add to this noted sports writer George Plimpton’s "ball size" theory, which opines that the smaller the ball, the better the literature. But as Plimpton recently told me, "Maybe the problem with tennis is that the ball is fuzzy."

Facile as Plimpton’s notion is, it has perverse merit. The cornerstone of a quality book is fuzziness’s opposite, clarity, which for writers can only be gained by intimacy. "Levels of the Game" tells the story of a 1968 U.S. Open semifinal between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. With the skill of a novelist, McPhee used the match as a backdrop for biography. Ashe and Graebner opened themselves up to him for dozens of hours of interviews about each point, as well as their childhoods, families, loves and ambitions. More than two decades later, John Feinstein, as prolific and prominent a sports writer as there is, wrote "Hard Courts," a book chronicling the 1990 pro tennis season. As he has told me, "Tennis players are horrible when it comes to giving interviewers time. You ask for an hour and they can’t believe you want so much. I wrote a book about golf and couldn’t wait to write another. I wrote a book about tennis and thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown."

Tennis transitioned so rapidly from patrician parlor activity to big-time profession that there was no time to incubate a journalistic culture. Baseball, basketball and football grew side-by-side with the press and have come to understand the rituals of access and interviewing that lend themselves in time to book-length treatments. But tennis only became a professional sport in 1968. As Jennings notes, "Before the Open Era, you had the social aspect of the tennis story that was mineable, the notion of tennis as a reflection of a certain aspect of society. But now there’s so much emphasis on competition and becoming a pro that it’s lost some of that impact." The individualism that runs through the pro game’s DNA makes it terribly difficult to get players to agree to let outsiders inside the temple. "And if a player can’t be bothered for a magazine story, how’s that ever going to become a book?" asks Feinstein.

With the pro game such a fortress, occasional stories surface from the periphery. Abraham Verghese’s "The Tennis Partner" was a haunting, thoughtful memoir of a doctor who befriends an ex-wannabe pro in recovery from shattered dreams and substance abuse. David Foster Wallace’s dense novel "Infinite Jest" weaves in wacky insights on the insanity of junior tennis academies. Wallace has also written splendid nonfiction pieces, including a 1996 deconstruction of [then] Top 70 pro Michael Joyce’s game that is equally humorous and insightful. The title character in Vladimir Nabokov’s "Lolita" is a rising junior who learns the game from a leering instructor based loosely on Bill Tilden. But again, these efforts are scarce.

According to Thomas Schaub, a University of Wisconsin English professor (and former college player), who’s one of the leading scholars of contemporary literature, "One big problem tennis has is that there’s a lot more nuance to it than observers would think. But only if you’ve played at a fairly high level or studied the game extensively can you begin to understand that grammar." As noted author David Halberstam says, "Face it: a lot of us who write about sports always go back to the games that moved us when we were kids. And not many of us played tennis."

What about those who do play? Peter Schwed, former chair of Simon & Schuster, mid-wifed dozens of sports books throughout the ’60s and ’70s. These include such classics as Rod Laver’s “The Education of a Tennis Player” and the fantastic 1972 anthology, "The Fireside Book of Tennis." The sober truth, Schwed explained, is that tennis players favor action over reflection. Golf and baseball, in contrast, are sports with a much slower pace — and a failure quotient that humbles its participants. Failure leads to introspection and appreciation, the very qualities that make for quality reading and writing. "Golfers always want to improve and make that score better," says Schwed. "But tennis players only care if they make the opponent one shot worse. They just want to win, and so they’re not as likely to contemplate what makes them or others tick. They’re also cheap, which makes them different than golfers or skiers, who’ll spend so much on equipment that they can also stomach spending $20 on a book, too."

Tennis’s connection to American society also contributes to its lack of significant literature. The story of America is that of marginalized groups ascending into the culture — Irish, Italians, Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese. None of these groups were particularly welcome at the old-line venues that dominated tennis well into the late ’60s. No wonder they disdained tennis, leaving it instead to anguished WASPs and haughty Europeans. "Tennis still has that association with the elite," says Schaub. "What could be further from the American sporting imagination than Nabokov learning to play tennis in a Russia ruled by a Czar?"

Relevance to the broader culture becomes exponentially harder when it comes to making tennis movies. For much of the 20th century, tennis enjoyed only a few cameo roles. The indoor tennis court of “Sabrina,” the raffish Hepburn-Tracy encounters in “Pat & Mike,” and, most deliciously, the chase scene in Hitchcock’s "Strangers on a Train," all revealed tennis as a fanciful sidelight to the lives of the affluent (which, for the most part, it was).

The tennis boom of the ’70s coincided with the rise of the morally-serious TV movie biography, leading to such competent efforts as "Little Mo" and "Second Serve: The Renee Richards Story." These films were in large part descendants of such straight-on big screen fare as "Pride of the Yankees," complete with quasi-realistic footage, guest appearances from tennis notables and predictable emotions.

And then came "Players." Released in 1979, produced by tennis-loving ubermogul Robert Evans ("Chinatown," "The Godfather"), "Players" was the first movie ever allowed to shoot inside the gates of the All England Club. Budgeted at $5.8 million, it was the most expensive tennis film ever.

The tragedy of "Players" strikes to the core of the problems tennis movies face: They collide precisely with tennis’s ongoing civil war between authenticity and artifice. Despite capturing much of the look of tennis, "Players’" hokey, "Rocky-" like plot lacked the gripping characters — that familiarity with the game’s grammar — that made such sports movies as Martin Scorcese’s "Raging Bull" and Ron Shelton’s "Bull Durham" compelling.

Nonetheless, tennis beckons. "When Billie Played Bobby," starring a toothy Ron Silver as Bobby Riggs and a spunky Holly Hunter as Billie Jean King, marched in lockstep with TV movie sensibilities. No longer overly serious, these films now combine documentary-style realism, shtick and crisp pacing. "When Billie Played Bobby" pulled this off superbly, bringing to life much of the details of an historic match with accuracy and good humor.

More recently, two features are currently in the development stage. "Wimbledon," a romantic comedy starring Kirsten Dunst as an American prodigy who falls in love with a low-ranked British player played by Paul Bettany, begins shooting this summer at the All England Club. Reese Witherspoon is involved with the second film. An early draft of the script we obtained carries the words "Untitled Tennis Movie." According to its writer, Bruce Miller, "Tennis is what it means to be a young woman in America: grace, power, beauty, glamour." It’s an ambitious agenda. In the script’s first 20 pages — the vital amount of time script experts believe either makes or breaks a film – we are treated to the site of a driven competitor (to be played by Witherspoon) getting defaulted out of a U.S. Open final and setting her coach’s car on fire. She finds redemption when she becomes the coach for an Anna Kournikova-like talent, a player who has let her celebrity get in the way of her game. The movie culminates with an act that completely defies credibility.

Arnon Milchan, producer of such notable films as “The King of Comedy,” “Pretty Woman,” “JFK,” “LA Confidential,” the golf film “Tin Cup” and many others, is a tennis enthusiast (though he did decline to speak for this story). Several years ago, Milchan obtained the WTA Tour’s TV rights. WTA operatives heralded a grand era of entertaining synergy between its rising stars and Milchan’s vast entertainment network. Save for a few photo-ops of Milchan and Iva Majoli at the Cannes Film Festival, and Milchan’s own intermittent appearances at pro events, little has happened. But as those who’ve worked with Milchan will attest, he is a man of mystery and enterprise. Hopefully, one day he’ll surface at the helm of a tennis film.

Perhaps the best way to capture tennis in narrative form at this point in its history is through the documentary. “She Got Game,” a pastiche of the women’s tour produced by a Canadian crew already aired in its mother country, is one effort that’s likely to surface on American airwaves. Deprived of significant access to many stars, “She Got Game” adroitly dances around the periphery, showcasing everything from lower-ranked players struggling for dollars to the cloistered life of WTA superstars and the various fans, agents and corporate types who populate the tour.

Another effort, "Beyond the Baseline," produced by ATP players Geoff Grant and Mark Keil, maximizes their peer-to-peer connections with extensive behind-the-scenes glimpses that range from the scatological to the insightful: the sober reality of a lonely, competitive, globe-trotting sport where only the very best make significant money. “Our movie was risqué,” says Grant. “Guys party, they get laid, they use profanity. We didn’t embellish anything.” “Beyond the Baseline” has already aired on network television in the United Kingdom, Australia and several Scandinavian nations. Grant and Keil hope to have it on-air in the U.S. within the next year, quite likely on The Tennis Channel.

Whether through books or movies, tennis is the Rodney Dangerfield of sports narrative: It gets no respect. In some ways, though, tennis has inflicted much of this disregard on itself. Exhibit A: The WTA Tour’s willingness to let its players spend hours in fashion photo shoots that ostensibly trivialize their athletic prowess. Too many people in the tennis business are eager to make the claim that tennis is all about entertainment and that we should conceive the likes of Serena Williams and Andre Agassi strictly as performers. But as Pete Sampras once noted, "I’m not an entertainer. I’m an athlete." Crowds may be entertained, but it’s hard to believe a player serving at 3-4, 15-30 merely thinks he is putting on a good show. He’s fighting for his life. Capturing the authenticity of that struggle is the challenge of art, not artifice.
 
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