Robert J. Lake
In the last few years, the publication of historical work aimed at delving into the various socio-cultural and political aspects of lawn tennis has not exactly proliferated, but it has certainly grown and its content has become more in-depth, focused and specialised. From research articles written by and aimed at professional scholars featured in academic journals, to monographs, edited collections and the more vibrant pieces uninhibited by academic convention (such as the excellent Love Game by Elizabeth Wilson), those approaching the sport as a subject of socio-historical study now have a solid foundation upon which to construct their own perspectives on the game’s development. David Berry’s text – a book thoughtfully aimed at a more general, rather than strictly academic, audience – adds to this rich plethora of scholarly work on the sport’s enduring, unique and intriguing characteristics.
A People’s History of Tennis is beautifully written and sensibly organized. It’s also balanced and careful in its analyses, and from this perspective probably aligns more closely with the academic historical texts I am familiar with than with many other “general audience” tennis books I have read in the past. This is credit to the author’s thorough, and at times evidently painstaking, research. Berry described his own book as a work of ‘narrative non-fiction written by a journalist’ (p.6), but underlying this more general aim is an agenda to counter the ‘simplistic’ and common perception of lawn tennis as ‘a sport of the establishment’ (p.3). Instead, argues Berry, the sport is far more ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’, and characterised more by the ‘mavericks’ than the conservatives (p.4). I liked Berry’s central argument here, and while at times I felt this was slightly exaggerated if not also contradicted by the author’s own statements – indeed, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (probably the most important institution for tennis in the world) is repeatedly characterised by Berry as conservative, if not also at times elitist, sexist and anti-Semitic – overall, he presents a compelling set of arguments, and covers an impressively wide range of subjects to support this central thesis. In his writing, the flow from narrow to broad, from personal to political, was seamless. I rather enjoyed the numerous historical and contemporary anecdotes that illuminated the broader arguments being made throughout the text. Through these personalised stories of players ranging from recreational to elite level, you get a “feel” for how tennis featured in their lives, why it mattered to them and what opportunities and challenges it provided them.
Much of the book covers well known tropes, for example in presenting tennis as a sport for the middle classes, at least in Britain which features as the main geographical focus of his research. Also covered in some depth are issues related to gender, sexuality, race and religion, and while these are certainly not new areas for tennis historians to examine, Berry manages to approach each one from a unique and intelligent perspective. I was particularly impressed with chapters 6, 9, 11 and 12, which focus upon four particular subject areas that have received scant academic attention.
Overall, the book has left me with more questions than answers, and that is probably the best compliment I could pay it or indeed any book of ‘narrative non-fiction’; it has opened my eyes to new ways of understanding the history of a sport I know well.
Expanding upon the research undertaken on parks’ and workers’ tennis clubs by Joyce Kay – though oddly not cited by Berry – the first of these four chapters delves into the interwar period and the efforts of politically left-leaning/socialist organisations to open up the sport to the working classes—an endeavour they almost succeeded in doing. Certainly, the Reading Labour Party Tennis Club as a case study of this general movement warrants further scholarly attention. Continuing in this vein, chapter 9 revisits the sustained efforts of entrepreneurial tennis aficionados in the early post-war period to provide facilities for their employees. Alongside local government officials who promoted parks’ tennis, companies like Boots and Midland Bank saw tennis as a sport that could help unite the classes through shared sporting endeavour. This contrasted greatly with the more conservative, snobby, socially exclusive and elitist clubs that had become perceived as the British mainstay, and thus presented the sport through a broadened lens that highlighted different possibilities for further research. In the other two chapters noted above, Berry focuses upon tennis in the broader Jewish community and players representing the LGBTQ community, offering an opportunity to expand our understanding of the sport’s more progressive – if not radical – side. While case studies of Jewish players like Daniel Press and Angela Buxton have at least received some scholarly attention, the insight into the broader context of club-life for Jewish players is certainly part of an area of original research here. I particularly welcomed the fresh perspectives on anti-Semitism in British tennis, which my colleagues such as Dave Dee had previously helped lay the contextual foundations for. Finally, well known as case studies of tennis players skirting the boundaries of heteronormativity in tennis are Bill Tilden, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. Interspersed with unique insights from players and members of clubs representing LGBTQ folk are more far-reaching statements about the ongoing problems tennis has had in trying to shake off its effeminate image. In this regard, I wondered what evidence Berry had found to support his contention that the British (boys) public schools declined to construct tennis courts for their pupils – until the mid-1920s – on the grounds that it might ‘encourage homosexuality’ (p.136). A sport for ‘sissies’ it might have been considered – and perhaps still is among the ignorant – but players like the Doherty brothers, alongside the top American and Australasian cracks had proved its rigorous and physically exacting demands in the late-Victorian/Edwardian era. My sense is there were several other factors at play here, but it is nevertheless an argument worth considering further.
Overall, the book has left me with more questions than answers, and that is probably the best compliment I could pay it or indeed any book of ‘narrative non-fiction’; it has opened my eyes to new ways of understanding the history of a sport I know well. Beyond its sound research, balanced arguments and critical approach, A People’s History of Tennis has done an excellent job of providing exactly that—a people’s history. The lives, passions, whims and struggles of regular recreational or club players are enmeshed flawlessly within a much grander narrative that captures the better-known world of tennis at the elite level, on the grass courts of Wimbledon and on television.
Copyright © Robert J. Lake 2020
NEW! David Berry’s book has been included in the Longlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award 2020. See the whole list here.