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London Review of Books                                                              Aug. 15, 1999

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© 2005-2020 Interplay
John McEnroe Plus Anyone
by Edward Said

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Even for players who were just below tournament level, the fabric of tennis used to be what made it the organic thing that it was and this is often missing not only in today's highly rarefied showcases but also, I'm sorry to say, in Caryl Phillips's rather too random compilation, The Right Set: The Faber Book of Tennis, which I had looked forward to reading as an anthology that he begins with Suzanne Lenglen and ends more or less with Venus Williams.

A whole middle period and aspect – the game's tissue, if you will – is almost totally missing from Phillips's collection, which makes me suspect that he threw it together a bit hastily and without a history of up-close involvement with tennis from inside the game. That's only an impression gathered from how little the actual life of the game appears in the book's pages and of course from my disappointment that so remarkably gifted a writer as Phillips gives so little of himself in what in the end remains a quasi-inert hodge-podge of selections from here and there.

Except for an interesting though badly written piece by Jaroslav Drobny, the Czech player who deserted his country for King Farouk's Egypt and who was a regular at the Gezira Sporting Club when I was learning the game in the late Forties, the Phillips book concentrates on the too distant past and the too contemporary present. A somewhat grim beefy former hockey player with tinted glasses who was one of the great durable artists of the game, Drobny was a formidable lefty with incredible angles and murderous drop shots that at the age of 34 finally earned him the 1954 Wimbledon title (defeating Rosewall in the final) and several French titles along the way.

Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody deserve the attention Phillips gives them, but not at the expense of the French Musketeers, and great pre-war players like Ellsworth Vines, who isn't even mentioned. But then neither are the dominant post-war figures like Kovacs, Trabert, Seixas, Savitt, Kovalevski, Talbert, Falkenburg and Ralston.

Moreover, The Right Set rarely takes you inside the game as it is played and lived rather than as it is looked at on television. I kept missing such finely rendered scenes of Fifties'-Seventies' tennis life as provided in the South African player Gordon Forbes's unassuming and chatty memoir, A Handful of Summers, with its details of that less commercial and high-pressured time when top tennis players didn't stay at the Ritz but at a club member's house and when even Rod Laver shared a room.

How can one give an adequate account of modern tennis without saying something about the Danes, Kurt Nielsen (a Wimbledon finalist) or Torben Ulrich? Nothing about the unheralded 1966 Wimbledon champion Manuel Santana, the Swedes, Sven Davidson and his predecessor (later Borg's coach), the diabetic Lennart Bergelin? No references to the great Nicola Pietrangeli and Fausto Gardini, the minuscule Beppe Merlo, the dashing Adriano Panatta, all of them longtime stars of Italian and world tennis.

Latin Americans like Brazil's Armando Viera, who perfected a unique over the shoulder lob return, Luis Ayala, the superb Chilean champion, Mexican Rafael Osuna, the most graceful of touch players, Ecuador's Pancho Segura, phenomenally gifted and gutsy, or Alex Olmedo, an American Latino champion of rare grace: no references to their achievements or longtime presence at all. It was the variety of their games and their strongly contrasting personalities that gave tennis its colour and fascination.

Most peculiar in Phillips's collection is the failure to note the significant milestones in the history of the post-war game: this sort of lapse is perhaps inherent in any anthology without headnotes or linking passages between the excerpts (some of them useful if not always inspired choices, for example, John McPhee writing about the Arthur Ashe-Clark Graebner 1969 Forest Hills match as a microcosm of American social differences) or any really resourceful organizing principle.

Certainly some considerable note needs to have been taken of Jack Kramer's invention of the Big Game and indeed of the pro tour itself. A major almost prophetic figure in the sport as player, entrepreneur, organizer, and shrewd pundit, too little attention is given Kramer here.

Equally significant in his time was the Australian Harry Hopman, who introduced the rigorously unforgiving training schedule that produced not only Hoad and Rosewall, 18 year old prodigies in the Fifties, but also Neale Fraser, Mal Anderson, Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Fred Stolle (plus lesser stars like Don Candy and Bob Howe). One would have wanted to know more about South African tennis during apartheid, which gave rise to Sturgess, Gordon and Jean (his sister) Forbes, plus the colourful Abe Segal, and fine Davis Cuppers like Bob Hewitt, Ian Vermaak, Trevor Fancutt, Owen Williams as well as the best of them, Cliff Drysdale. Or Indian tennis, with the great Krishnan, the Amritraj brothers, and Paes, the best doubles player today.

The connection between tennis and politics is hinted at in the extracts about and by Arthur Ashe, but there is also something to be said about the German game, whose earliest prominent figure, the glamorous and elusive Baron Gottfried von Cramm married Barbara Hutton and had ambiguous relationships with the Nazis; his tenacity and panache had a lasting influence on the game, apparent not only in Boris Becker and Michael Stich (who resembles von Cramm in the sheer fluency of his strokes) but also the remarkable Wilhelm Bungert, a Wimbledon finalist 20 years before Boris.

What is the secret of Czech tennis, what with standouts like Drobny and his doubles partner Czernik, leading to Jan Kodes (Wimbledon, 1973), Ivan Lendl (the greatest mechanic of the professional era, a hero to my son's generation, a forerunner of tennis's decline to mine), Navratilova, Mecir, Kucera, and several other gifted champions? By contrast, why has British tennis, leaving aside Henman and Rusedski, fared so wanly since Fred Perry in spite of strong players like Mark Cox and Roger Taylor?

Polish tennis – Vladimir Skonecky, Wojtek Fibak – deserves a bit of notice, as does the amazing efflorescence of the Spanish clay court players, male as well as female, to say nothing of the great Swedish dynasty from Borg and Wilander through to Enqvist and Magnus Larssen, or the consistently interesting French competitors that would have to include Noah, Leconte, Pioline, as well as the Dutch school starting with Tom Ocker, one of the quickest players ever, who was followed by Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon winner.

And then we need a survey of the many Americans who emerged from Florida and California beginning with Gardner Mulloy through to Chris Evert, who is handsomely profiled in the book's last and best section, "The Modern Personalities", along with Billie Jean King, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, and Jimmy Connors. The modern women's game at its best was initiated by the unforgivably excluded Maureen Connolly, perhaps the finest woman player ever, who herself built on the achievements of Louise Brough, Doris Hart, Alice Marble, and Pauline Betz, among many others. Along with Connolly there was also Maria Bueno, whom Phillips passes over very lightly, but she dominated the game for about a decade in the Sixties, just before Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, and Evonne Goolagong.

Having said all that by way of demurral I should add that except for some innocuous bits about "tradition and the game" at the end (Phillips would have done better to consult and quote from Richard Gould's excellent The Inner Game of Tennis, or any number of how-to manuals written by coaches and/or former players), this is still a fun book to read, even for all the objections it provokes. Phillips allows certain aspects of the game to shine through into the contemporary era – the tyranny of rapacious coaches like Nick Bolitieri, the psychology of the great player, the game's perennial terms of reference, for example, Grand Slams, much punishing travel, locker-room experience, physical discipline, and most of all, the sheer beauty of tennis's ephemeral qualities, the never-to-be-repeated great duels, the spectacular shot, the sheer risk of playing a match on set point – though I must say that it is surprising why Phillips gives no space at all to the doubles game, surely a rare treat for player and spectator alike.

I kept thinking of the remark made by a renowned player some years back who, when asked about the greatest doubles team in history, said, "John McEnroe plus anyone." Why and how, I wanted to ask Phillips. Or, my last little cavil, how can any description of tennis as something experienced and played by anyone, at any level of skill, fail to speak explicitly about "gamesmanship" or even "lifemanship" which were first so memorably identified and depicted by that perennially underestimated writer of genius, Stephen Potter, whose unscrupulous, immensely sly and maddeningly crafty character, Gattling-Fenn, has to be the model for players who beat us on the court and in real life without "actually cheating".

What tennis needs now is a return to the wooden racket, a de-emphasis of the serve, consistently slower surfaces, less or more evenly distributed money, a revival of the game at the school level. Otherwise it seems to me to be doomed with no place to go.