Posted: October 13, 2004
Books discussed in this essay:
Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar by E. Digby Baltzell
Match Play and the Spin of the Ball by William T. Tilden II
o put it bluntly, everything you read today by sports-writers about tournament tennis prior to 1968 and the subsequent dominance of big-money professional tennis is completely wrong. For one thing, between 1930 and 1968 very few champions or top players were rich young men. Far from it. For another thing, and contrary to John McEnroe on TV, Pete Sampras was not the greatest of all tennis players. McEnroe thinks tennis began with Rod Laver. Sampras could never get past the early rounds on the clay at Roland Garros because the clay surface slowed his serve up just enough to expose his flawed backhand: the racket head trails just a bit.
I will shortly tell you a story I heard about that clay from Bill Tilden. But consider that in 1938 Don Budge won the Grand Slam—the Australian, English, and American championships on grass and the French on the Roland Garros clay. Tilden won his first United States championship in 1920 at the age of 27 then won six more, in 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929. He dominated world tennis until 1930, when nudged aside by Lacoste, Cochet, Borotra, and Brugnon, the dashing Four Musketeers. A spectacular master of every shot in the game, Tilden's overall record is unlikely to be equaled. Highly literate and analytical, he wrote the best how-to book on tennis, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. It belongs on the shelf beside E. Digby Baltzell's Sporting Gentlemen, the only thorough analysis of the social history of the game, an indispensable work. Why mince words? It is a thoroughly wonderful book, full of luminous anecdote. Baltzell spent his professional life as a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
He coined the phrase "leveling up" to describe what tennis did during the years from 1930 to 1968, what I call the Silver Age. The great American players from 1930 were Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, and Richard Gonzales, who had been born in Los Angeles, and hated the sportswriters' "Pancho." He would quietly say, "Richard, please." All were poor boys who grew up on the cement courts of southern California under the watchful eye of tennis impressario Perry Jones, who developed not only their tennis but insisted on turning sometimes rough diamonds into young men of gentlemanly demeanor. All were perfect in this respect on the court, and with the exception of the rogue Bobby Riggs, off the court. After them, the pattern was similar. Champion Frank Parker was a poor boy from a Polish neighborhood in Wisconsin, Talbert and Trabert poor boys from Cincinnati. Tennis shaped their manners, and served them very well in careers later on. Perhaps from a distance they looked rich when they were tennis stars. They behaved with the style on and off the court. It was insisted upon, the style of the Gentleman.
* * *
I joined the West Side Tennis Club in forest hills as a junior tournament player in 1946. In every detail this was an American Wimbledon, both of them citadels of the gentlemanly ideal. Both insignia had crossed gold tennis rackets within a double gold circle. Laid out in a large horseshoe were the Club at the eastern end and the Stadium in the west, known as the "House that Tilden Built," to accommodate the crowds who came to see him during his great years of the 1920s, the Golden Age. In the middle of the horseshoe, there were some 30 grass courts surrounded by flower beds; on the perimeter, some 50 clay and composition courts. The Club house and the neighborhood around it, owned by the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, were English in their red-brick required style and had been designed by the architect son of Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect who (with Calvert Vaux) had designed Central Park.
The manners required of all tennis players, champions as well as juniors, were casual but also strict. Polite, understated, broadly Protestant, gentlemanly. Tennis clothes always had to be white. Only a touch of quality might suggest self-expression. In every respect, the Game was more important than a player's personality. As at the Wimbledon Centre Court, a sign hung over the gateway to the Stadium court inscribed with the famous lines from Kipling's poem "If": "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same...." After other commandments, the poem ends: then "You'll be a Man, my Son." The word "man" there means Gentleman. Triumph and Disaster are to be faced without display, with equanimity, since you are controlled and know the most important things; and you as well as your victory or defeat are much less important than the Game itself, and what it represents, to which you owe your real loyalty. You let your shots do all the talking. You congratulate your opponent at the end, for playing the Game well, and shake hands, meaning it, if possible, or "Assume a virtue if you have it not," as Hamlet says to Gertrude.
Not only do you subordinate yourself through the white uniform, but you would never throw a racket, let alone smash one on the ground, as is commonplace now. This atrocious behavior indicates that you blame the racket, which is absurd. You would never punch the air with your fist to indicate "fight." Effort is expected. Never would you rebuke an umpire or a linesman, much less give the "finger," McEnroe-style. Obscenity would be far out of bounds, unthinkable. All of this was as much expected on the Club courts as in the Stadium. Even in a casual match, cheating was unthinkable. People would be speechless. All of this was a model for life.
In 1935 a remarkable incident occurred at Wimbledon. Don Budge, on the threshold of greatness, had upset the British champion Bunny Austin in the quarters. After the match, young Budge was approached by Baron Gottfried von Cramm, the German champion, who wondered if he might discuss a delicate matter. They sat on a bench. Von Cramm told Budge that he had shown bad sportsmanship when he had "thrown" a point after Austin had received a bad call, as many players did in those days. The Baron pointed out that to do so embarrassed the linesman before a large crowd. Better to just play the Game without such displays. To someone like McEnroe this would sound like metaphysics. That was a different universe from the one inhabited by the McEnroes. And Budge was a poor boy from the California cement courts: "leveling up."
Two years later, on July 20, 1937, on the Centre Court, in the fifth and deciding match of the Davis Cup Interzone Finals, Budge played the Baron in what everyone experienced enough to judge, including Tilden himself, said had been the greatest tennis match ever played. Just before they walked onto the court, the Baron was called to the phone, someone from Berlin. Hitler was on the line, wishing him luck. Just what you want before a big match! The Baron was tall, blonde, and athletic, the Nazi ideal, but he loathed the Nazis. That day, in a five-set match in which Von Cramm went up 4-1 in the fifth set, both players were at their peak, making twice as many placements as errors. Budge finally pulled it out 8-6 on the 18th point of the final game, hitting a diving passing shot past Von Cramm—and though not able to see where it landed, hearing the cheers and knowing. The final round against Bunny Austin and the British was in the bag. The large silver Davis Cup would go to America, resting where it should be, in the lounge of the West Side Tennis Club.
* * *
The idea of the gentleman was an English invention with distant models in the Renaissance and in Horace and Virgil. It saved England from a Revolution such as would occur devastatingly across the Channel. The best essay on the idea is C.S. Lewis's "Addison," because Joseph Addison and Richard Steele formulated the ideal in The Spectator papers, appearing daily (except Sunday) in 1711 and 1712. These constitute a conduct manual. The Gentleman amounts to a third and mediating social category between titled aristocrat and bumptious merchant. Both had to change to meet on this middle ground.
The aristocrat had to get rid of his powdered wig and silks and don respectable clothes. He had to stop spitting on the floor, and dueling, and stop chasing, seducing, or raping women from the middle classes. The aristocrats had to allow marriages in their families with the sons and daughters of the wealthy merchants and even go into business themselves, lest the merchants snap up their landed estates. Both aristocrats and rising merchants had to gain some decent learning; best to go to Oxford or Cambridge.
As I say, the Spectator was a how-to manual. At its center, of course, was a Club, defining the historic role of that institution: a meeting place for the two classes, and a reward for meeting the new standard. Sir Roger de Coverley here is the center of the Spectator Club, a charming old superannuated aristocrat and a Tory. The Whig to be civilized is Andrew Freeport, a prosperous merchant with crude manners and a mouth full of crass clichés. The regular Spectator papers constitute the curriculum: digestible essays on Milton, theater, Locke's association psychology, good taste, balladry, and other topics of a Gentleman's conversation suitable for the Freeports of the coming world to have at hand. The prose style is not too formal, never pedantic, the Gentleman's style. In the last paper, Freeport has a title and has bought a landed estate. Why would he want a Revolution? Architecturally, the grandeur of Baroque gave way to the more relaxed but still formal Georgian; Bach gave way to Handel; and the Gentlemen ran the world. They were confident and tough. A naval anthem of the time entitled "Heart of Oak" went:
We'll still make them fear, and we'll still make them flee,
And drub 'em on shore, as we've drubbed 'em at sea.
Napoleon found out.
Richardson's 1749 novel Clarissa amounts to a powerful dramatization of social history. The unregenerate Sir Richard Lovelace pursues the beautiful middle-class Clarissa Harlowe. He tries every approach to seduce her. He is in it pour le sport and has no notion of marriage. As Jacques Barzun has remarked, such people, well-fed and without work, tend to be promiscuous. Clarissa maintains her heroic independence, Lovelace at length kidnaps her, drugs her, and rapes her. She wastes away and finally dies of a broken heart. Clarissa's relative, a Colonel Morden, catches up with Lovelace and kills him in a duel. Of course a duel can no longer take place in decent England. It takes place in France. Richardson could not know it in 1749, but about 40 years later Colonel Morden's sword would become the guillotine. The French aristocracy never welcomed their own Pierre Freeports and the French never managed the English compromise; C.S. Lewis says no young Frenchman could really be a Gentleman. Too much cheek and strut. France never had a Victorian period. No Tennyson and no Arnold, only unrest and revolution, as in 1848, and poetes maudit, outlaw artists and intellectuals hating the never elevated and refined bourgeoise.
* * *
Everyone came to the West Side Tennis Club during the Silver Age after World War II. The tournament players worked out there between Eastern grass-court tournaments, a marvelous string, emerald green—South Orange, Seabright, doubles championship at Longwood, out to the Meadow Club in South Hampton, and then Paris and Wimbledon. They also played on time off with the junior players at the Club. They had no entourages along, no trainers, coaches, dieticians, and hangers-on, and no limousines. I learned most about subtleties of tactics from Pancho Segura and Bobby Riggs, by that time a pro. Both were carefree spirits, full of laughs, Riggs wanting to bet on everything, if only Cokes. "Give you five games a set for two Cokes." Riggs, not the spectacular servers, holds the Stadium record for service aces. Though only 5'8," he had a powerful wrist and could conceal the direction of any of his several serves until the last split-second. Though he had rodent-like speed around the court, he was not essentially a defensive player, but forceful at the net; probably the most underrated player in the modern history of the Game. Jack Kramer was too consistently powerful for a junior to be worthwhile even for practice, but I remember this aggressive advice: "When you've got him down (he meant broken his serve), jump on his chest." Translation: "Turn up the pressure and close the deal." On his own serve, Kramer hit a huge one, always to the backhand and he always came to the net behind it. Predictability did not matter when opponents faced that power. I wonder how Sampras's backhand would fare against that. Kramer won the U.S. Championship in 1946 and 1947, and then set about organizing modern professional tennis.
When Bill Tilden came to the Club in 1946 and 1947, he did not just stroll down the hallway from the entrance, he swept in like a large wave rolling up the beach. Often he entered wearing a light camel's hair top coat, which swirled open like a cape, but sometimes a bulky tennis sweater. His rangy arm would be wrapped around four or five tennis rackets. Well over six feet tall, he had a long horse face, wolfish grin, very wide shoulders and narrow hips, and long, extra long legs. As he advanced down the oak-paneled corridor toward the main dining room, past the photographs of past champions, he greeted acquaintances and maybe even strangers loudly and theatrically; an actor on the court, he had also played on the Broadway stage: "Soooo glad to see you, Freddie," and "You are as beautiful as ever, Frances!" His flamboyance was so far outside the restrained, let us say Protestant, manners of the Club that he tended to fluster the members. When not playing in the Club courts, he liked to play everlasting games of bridge in the men's lounge on the second floor, exceedingly fussy about bridge protocol, on which he was a tyrannical expert. I think bridge emerged during the '20s as the card game of his social class, Philadelphia main line. The term Grand Slam comes from bridge. During the late summer 1946 championship season at the Club, I saw him play a set on the clubhouse grass court with a player plausibly a contender for the men's title. Tilden, 53, beat him 6-0 in about 15 minutes. People said he could beat anyone in the world for one set.
One of my coaches told me to "Stay away from that sonofabitch." Then he dropped the subject. Looking back, I think Tilden was too much of a gentleman to misbehave. He knew the rules, and he valued his reputation. Years later, in 1946, he was arrested in Los Angeles while in his car with apparent adolescent male prostitutes. Acquaintances believed he was set up by hostile local police. In My Story, his very fine and evocative memoir, he asked to be judged by his behavior henceforth. Still Tilden trailed clouds of glory, a champion at the great capitals of Europe and at places like Cannes and Nice. He was distant but accessible to junior players.
Once he explained to me that he had played an especially difficult match against The Crocodile, the careful, patient René Lacoste, on clay courts at Roland Garros: "The French had frozen the balls." "What?" "Yes, as hosts, they provided the balls, and they kept them under the stands on ice. Every time they gave us new balls they were ice cubes. They also soaked the clay. I could not have served an ace with a howitzer. I had to out-steady René and outthink him." My competitive heart went out to big Bill. Imagine. The greatest player in the world with frozen tennis balls on muddy clay against The Crocodile, who would love it all. By the way, those green reptiles later emblazoned on Lacoste's polo shirts have to be crocodiles, not alligators. I have been unable to popularize that truth.
One piece of advice Tilden gave me that summer seemed startling and even heroic. I did not know then that early in his career, in some sort of accident, he had lost the top joint in a finger on his playing hand and thereafter hit every stroke with some pain. That July, trained and eager, I was intent on my own tournaments, but I pulled an arm muscle, very painful, and I even thought of pulling out of a couple of tournaments. "Play right through it," Tilden said, "dominate it." I understood that Tilden had steeled himself to stand pain and that nothing so trivial as my arm sprain could possibly stand in his way, that the only thing he cared about was championship tennis. His concentrated will, his powerful emotions, his analytical intelligence, everything was channeled into tennis domination. Through the 1920s he had dominated the courts of the world, and dominated every opponent, some thought to the point of sadism. Sometimes he had treated an opponent as a sort of specimen, experimenting with him, trying one thing or another, even such an opponent as the great Gerald Patterson of Australia, on the Stadium court. The old write-ups show that Patterson had a tremendous forehand. Tilden decided to attack...the forehand. The theory he tested was that if he beat Patterson there, what had he left? And Patterson would be destroyed. If Patterson happened to hit a good backhand, Tilden ignored it. And so it went, 8-6, 6-0, 6-0. The spider ate the fly.
In Match Play and the Spin of the Ball Tilden gave one bit of advice that he often phrased to us in various ways: "Never hit a ball, even in practice, without making a conscious decision about just where on the court you are going to hit it, how hard, with or without spin, and what you want to accomplish with that shot." On that last, he meant "as part of a sequence of shots." Kramer put this in another way, distinguishing between a Hitter and a Player. He had contempt for anyone who just slugged the ball. I think in the direction I have cited from Tilden you see how analytical, purposeful, and dangerous a player he was: "Dominate it."
* * *
Now we come to the advent of big-money professional tennis in 1968, a galactic shift, and 1968 an annus mirabilis, orhorribilis, that changed a great deal more than tennis. Years later I met Digby Baltzell at a New York club and this sociologist-historian compared 1968 with 1848 in Europe. In both, revolutions swept the modern nations internationally, in 1968 almost overthrowing the de Gaulle government in Paris, in the United States contributing to the de facto abdication of Lyndon Johnson, but uncoordinated uprisings everywhere.
Let me make one preliminary observation about this. After the war, at the Club, we teenagers aspired to adulthood. We approved of adult Gentlemanly standards as exemplified in the manners of tennis. We dressed like adults, in seersucker or blue blazers and neckties. We went to the Saturday night dances at the Club in tuxedos and gave the young women orchid corsages. We danced to the same music as adults, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Strauss, Cugat. To adults we said "sir," but if we had been called "kids," we would have been surprised and offended. A very hostile ad for hair tonic described a rival product as "greasy kid stuff." The adult tournament players who happened to be around came to the dances, too. We danced with the women tournament players. If some hippie had showed up ahead of 1968 and told us that this was "boring" we would have told him that he was nuts and should see a physician. In retrospect this Silver Age of tennis has connections with the 1920s, and the adults I knew had no quarrel with society. They had been to college, and we were headed for college and varsity tennis.
In 1968, a strange reversal occurred. The teenagers could not act like adults because the adults had gone native and joined the Kids. The Kids had their own music, for example, and their own long hair, and their own costumery. The adults, adults no longer, took it all up, at least to the point possible, even on Ivy League campuses, erstwhile pillars of the Eastern Establishment. I remember Andre Agassi from his early days, garish costumes on court, hair, playing great tennis, but seeming to be trying out for King of the Kids. John McEnroe, a very great player, was a barbaric brat, obscene, gesticulating, self-regarding, infantile. One year, he was excluded from the Wimbledon Ball on Finals Weekend. Unacceptable behavior. Jimmy Connors, another great, was a little, but only a little, better. As an epigraph to Sporting Gentlemen, Digby Baltzell uses a statement from Arthur Ashe, a complete Gentleman even when I met him in Sacramento in 1968 at the Northern California Championships. He would win the first Open Championships held at Forest Hills that year. Baltzell's epigraph from Ashe:
Certain values and standards that had bonded players in my earlier days as a professional—certain codes of honor and a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie—disappeared. In some ways, the younger players arrived in a world in which the very concept of values and standards was unknown or quaint or obsolete.
In 1968, in Sacramento, half the young men in town seemed to look like Charlie Manson. Arthur was actually preppie, Lacoste shirt, khaki trousers, regimental striped belt, short hair, manners of a Gentleman. In his statement quoted just now, he sounds lost. Once, as a child, he had thrown a tantrum in a tournament. His working-class father had pulled him weeping out of the tournament. Somebody should have done that with McEnroe.
The two new stadia in Flushing Meadows, the valley of ashes in Gatsby, except in their being named for Ashe and for Louis Armstrong are barren of, no, reject, any sense of history. They express not tennis but money and power and celebrity sports. The crowds are the same ones you see at Yankee Stadium, and the Giants' Meadowlands, and the Knicks' Madison Square Garden. The tennis players gesticulate, mug, grouse, complain. They wear designer clothes in wild colors. They have entourages like boxers. Most of them are negative models, exhibiting behavior to avoid. Leveling up? Fergedabadit.
Pete Sampras, from his appearance, has seemed to have a sense of his place in tennis history, his demeanor good except for a slouching pout when things go badly. Andre Agassi, after a complex career, has morphed into a virtual statesman of tennis as he moves dignified toward Olympus. Roger Federer, a superb classical stroker, has never been seen wearing a baseball cap backwards, is dignified, and has the championship stuff. My present favorite is the Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, who last year embodied at Flushing Meadows Vince Lombardi's maxim, "The player who will not lose cannot lose." In the semis, she played herself almost into a dehydrated coma, refusing to lose to Jennifer Capriati. Somehow, she rose the next morning to win the finals against another fine Belgian, Kim Clijsters. If the great but gaudy Williams sisters pull themselves together this year, they will have trouble with Henin-Hardenne.
Certainly the ideal of the Gentleman remains vibrant at the Club, though the Stadium that Tilden built is an unused husk. But what happened to it otherwise? Wimbledon remains Wimbledon—grass, white tennis clothes—and will never change, and grows more prestigious by the year because of that.
But did the ideal disappear here with the collapse of the Eastern Establishment and the evaporation of the mainline Protestant Churches? One day, around 1968, Nelson Rockefeller looked around and said, "I am the Eastern Establishment." Once widespread and dominant, one seems to hear the ideal of the Gentleman withdrawing like the sea at Arnold's Dover beach: you seem to hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. Nelson's brother David, retired chairman at Chase Manhattan, is known for his bad loans to Third World countries. Some banker. A wit once quipped, "Today, the working class is Democratic, the middle class is Republican, and the upper class is Communist." Many patriarchs of Establishment families tolerated sons and daughters who went radical in 1968. Any responsible head of family would have disinherited them with a flick of the pen, for a betrayal of family honor: you have rejected what this family has been and is. If you want to edit a Communist magazine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fine, good luck, support yourself, goodbye. Power may have died with courage and a conviction of responsibility.
But the ideal lives, here and there, and it is so attractive that I think it will return, especially when I remember sitting on the porch at the West Side Club, sipping a gin-and-tonic, watching the sun set over the stadium while lights twinkle in the distant towers of Manhattan, as sprinklers make rainbows against the dusk and guarantee that tomorrow the grass courts will still be green, the flower beds in color, and I think of the last line of Scott Fitzgerald's 1932 essay about New York in the '20s: "Come back, come back, O glittering and white."