Dept. of History, Stockholm University
Tennis today is one of the world’s most popular sports in terms of number of players, audience interest and media coverage. Tennis is played in all parts of the world, and in practically every country around the world. The sport has a long history and is rich in tradition, and tennis history offers many interesting general sport history development lines in terms of factors such as social class, gender, ethnicity, politics, idolatry and celebrities, and not least commercialism and media coverage. For the past hundred years or so, I would argue, tennis has been at the forefront in terms of sport’s general connections to societal development. For example, women players took part in championships and Olympic Games as early as the beginning of the 20th century. Tennis attracted interested audiences from the start, which led to professional activities with show games for money and contracted players emerging already during the interwar period. The distinctly upper-class character of the sport of tennis gradually changed during the 20th century and the sport experienced a social class transition by which ever wider sections of the population became involved – a pattern that became clear not least in Sweden with a marked development into a national game followed by great international successes. During the 1950s and 60s, professional tennis grew for both men and women and posed a sharp challenge to the sport’s old amateur ideal, which resulted in tennis being one of the first sports to eliminate the difference between amateurs and professionals in competition.
The ability of tennis to attract audiences – perhaps owing to the game’s inherent beauty and aesthetics, its ingenious scoring system with built-in suspense and drama, and with both technical and psychological competitive elements – has benefited the development of tennis in many ways. Not least tradition-heavy major competitions such as Wimbledon in London and the French Open in Paris have a long history of well-stocked stands and a rich social life around the courts. Tennis was also one of the sports well suited for the new TV age, and during the last few decades of the 20th century the sport had great medial and commercial impact. Many of the top tennis stars became idols and world celebrities, some with their own brands. The prize money soared, and today there’s millions of dollars to play for in every major competition, both for men and women. By the way, tennis is one of the main sports for women athletes in terms of the possibility of a good income, and nowadays prize money for women and men is the same at Wimbledon, over one million euros for the winner. And, in recent years, the top ten list of the highest incomes for female athletes in all sports has always contained 7–8 tennis players. In a broader societal perspective, tennis history also includes many political events and aspects of boycotts and exclusions, as well as social issues of class, race and ethnicity.
Almost all of the above perspectives are included in an extremely rich five-hundred-page volume entitled Routledge Handbook of Tennis: History, Culture and Politics, with Robert J. Lake as editor and contributor. The book is an anthology with no less than 45 different chapters, or rather different essays of about ten pages each. Lake has written a couple of chapters himself, and a total of 49 scholars from around the world have contributed to this impressive volume. The Handbook represents a high level of ambition in terms of covering the social history of tennis from a number of different angles, covering also the game’s historical development into our time. Geographically, there are authors from all parts of the world, and a couple of essays highlight tennis in for instance North Africa, the Middle East and India. Otherwise, it is Europe, the United States, South America and Australia where tennis has had its strongest hold that also take center stage in this book.
Lake has chosen to structure the volume into three parts based on different themes. The first part consists of essays that shed light on the historical development of tennis in terms of internationalization, professionalization, commercialization and the emergence of idols and celebrities. The second part contains themes around class, gender, ethnicity and media development, and the third and concluding part focuses on politics, nationalism, identity, race and women’s development in tennis.
Long history, rich in traditions – originating in the upper classes
In the historical part, there are about fifteen chapters that describe the first steps of tennis in different countries. Tennis grew out of a number of different old games and activities with racket and balls within the nobility and the upper social classes. The sport of tennis as we see it today borrowed various parts such as the scoring system, nets, racket with strings, etc. from other sports, and around the mid-19th century, the game “lawn tennis” began to emerge as its own sport. During the latter part of the 19th century, special tennis clubs were formed at the same time as recreational facilities began to build tennis courts in England, Germany, Holland, France and other parts of Western Europe. Undoubtedly, the game from the beginning was primarily a matter for the higher strata of society, and in the book even the Swedish king Gustav V is mentioned in two lines as a committed person when it came to initiating the sport of tennis and the construction of courts in Sweden.
In 1913 the International Lawn Tennis Federation (now International Tennis Federation, ITF) was formed, and the tennis international network was formalized, with individual competitions and the national teams competition Davis Cup attracting more and more participants. One of the chapter in the book, written by Kevin Jefferys, is about one of the first really big stars on the men’s side, the Englishman Fred Perry, today probably mainly remembered for the clothing brand. Perry won a large number of competitions around the world in the early 1930s. He was ranked as the world’s best player and led England to four wins in the Davis Cup. Unlike most elite players at this time, Fred Perry did not come from the upper echelons of society, and early on he claimed that he needed to make money on his tennis skills for his livelihood. It became public that he was contemplating becoming a professional. This created a long-standing conflict with the British Lawn Tennis Association, who held the ideals of “gentleman amateurs” high. The LTA claimed that Perry already had many nice benefits through his tennis and suggested that they could be improved if he would just stay in amateur tennis. In 1936, however, Perry decided to join the professional circus in the United States, led by Bill Tilden, who already in the mid-1920s left his position as the world’s best amateur player and became one of the pioneers in developing professional tennis in the United States. International amateur tennis was strongly critical of the competition from the pros and there were harsh tones and cold war for decades to come.
Professional circuses for both men and women
One of the particularities of the sport of tennis, compared to most other sports, is that already during the interwar period there were profiled and talked-about star players as well as a certain professional market for both men and women. Women, as mentioned, competed extensively in tennis at the beginning of the 20th century, and a chapter written by Elisabeth Wilson deals with the development of tennis for women, with a special focus on the 1920s and 30s and events on the French Riviera. Wilson calls this period “Golden Years and Golden Stars” and tells of how the sport of tennis quickly emerged as the great public pleasure of the well-to-do classes with its tournaments and show matches, both for men and women. That women’s tennis was in great demand in the audience early on is evidenced by the fact that at the 1919 Wimbledon, the women’s final was sold out with 8,000 spectators and the audience queued for hours outside the arena in the hope of getting a seat. The final was played between the experienced Englishwoman Dorothea Chambers who had won the competition seven times before, and the new challenger and sensation, the young Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen. Chambers played in traditional long tennis dress down to her ankles with a high collar and long sleeves, often with a corset underneath. Suzanne Lenglen represented the new modern way with a loose-fitting dress to just below the knees, an open neck and short sleeves. The Frenchwoman also had a more powerful playing style with perfect precision spiced with temperamental outbursts that attracted audiences. The match was even and exciting, Chambers had match points on two occasions before the young Frenchwoman won 9-7 in the third decisive set.
With Suzanne Lenglen’s entry into the women’s elite, female tennis changed, both in terms of dress and the actual execution of the tennis game. She won Wimbledon again the following year and became a very famous and well-publicized new star in France, based on the Riviera. In addition to traditional tournaments, show matches were arranged that attracted large audiences who wanted to see her play. She was said to move very gracefully and beautifully on the track, almost like she was dancing on the court. Lenglen also created a new tennis fashion with her shorter dress and a particularly thick headband she always wore when she played. She became tennis’ first female celebrity, constantly in the papers for her game, her clothes and her relatively extravagant private life among the celebrity elite on the Riviera. In the mid-1920s, she turned her back on amateur tennis, and became a full-time professional playing exhibition matches for money in both the United States and Europe, making around $100,000 a year – today the equivalent of many millions. Suzanne Lenglen has an arena named after her at Roland Garros, the tennis facility in Paris where the French Open championships are played.
The strong commercial and media development of the sport of tennis
Regarding the economic development around world tennis, the book contains an interesting contribution by Barry Smart, who delivers a brief historical overview of various phases in both media development and players’ advertising revenues and sponsorship agreements around major tennis competitions from the early 20th century until today. Smart reports a number of figures demonstrating the rapid and almost unrestrained commercial development around tennis. He also provides a list of the sport’s largest sponsors, and they turn out to be some of the financially strongest global corporations in the world, such as Emirates, FedEx, Coca-Cola, Rolex, Peugeot and sports companies like Wilson and Head high on the list. Undoubtedly, tennis is a sport that has attracted sponsors and advertising ventures on a large scale. Smart also notes that in recent decades, tennis has developed into a truly global sport; the top 100 ranked men’s players 2018 came from 39 different countries, the 100 highest ranked women from 33 different nations. Gone is thus the historical dominance of England, Australia and the United States. One of the biggest changes is that the end of the cold war opened up Eastern Europe, and today there are many in the world elite from the former Eastern bloc and the new Balkan countries.
During a 20 year period from the end of the 1970s onwards, as is well known, little Sweden was something of a great power in men’s tennis with a large number of players on the top 100 list and sometimes also several on the top 10 list in the world. The Swedish Davis cup team practically subscribed to a place in the DC finals many years in a row. Today, this is but a fond memory and there is not much to suggest that Swedish tennis will ever come even close to such a period of success; the level of competition has changed completely. The Swedish winning streak must be regarded as a parenthesis in the history of tennis, a gap that opened up just when world tennis still consisted mainly of people from the upper strata of the world with fine technology as the main weapon, coinciding with the emergence of several well-trained Swedish tennis youths. The Swedes introduced a new, much more physically demanding and patience-testing tennis game. When the Berlin Wall collapsed and the sport of tennis at the professional world level was available for a large number of new countries and players, the Swedish tennis saga was over.
However, the Routledge Handbook of Tennis does not mention the Swedish so-called “tennis miracle” even in passing. Despite nearly 500 pages of international tennis history, there is not one line about the Swedish success period, which produced three world number ones and a large number of top ranked players in the world, and exceptional successes for such a small country in the national team competition Davis Cup. Nor is this mentioned in the editor’s initial historical overview of 15 pages. Björn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg flicker past as individual names in a couple of places in different chapters, but when the country of Sweden is mentioned, ten times according to the index list, it mostly refers to King Gustav V and his interest in tennis. But then, there’s no point in engaging in national chauvinism. The book contains interesting descriptions of the development of tennis in many other countries, for example Czechoslovakia.
The “bourgeois” sport of tennis in the socialist Eastern countries
Tennis was a popular sport in Czechoslovakia with strong roots from the early 20th century. After the Soviet takeover and with a communist regime, the possibilities for a “bourgeois” sport such as tennis diminished. But unlike several other traditionally bourgeois sports such as golf and sailing, which the communist ideologues strongly disapproved of, tennis was not completely banned in Czechoslovakia. Svoboda & Numerato’s chapter on tennis in Czechoslovakia describes how the sport found different ways to survive behind the Iron Curtain. The option of competing abroad was in most eastern countries very limited and controlled, but local domestic clubs and competitions managed to stay active. Despite all the restrictions, several Czech players managed to develop a competitive edge and some were allowed to participate in international competitions, supervised by politruks and with the requirement that a large proportion of any prize money be paid to the state.
The most noticed of the Czech players was Martina Navratilova. In the early 1970s, she emerged as one of the best juniors in the world, and quickly achieved success even among the senior women. She started to win prize money but was basically only allowed to keep money for food, the rest went to the state. Only 18 years old, when she participated in the 1975 US Open in New York, she applied for and was granted asylum in the United States. The high-profile event meant that the communist regimes in a number of eastern countries further tightened the opportunities for tennis players to go to the West and participate in international tournaments for many years to come. Neither the Czech authorities nor the country’s media ever mentioned Navratilova’s name after the defection, despite her becoming one of the world’s best players with many victories in the major competitions. A similar case was Ivan Lendl, world number one among men in the mid-1980s. Lendl had special agreements with the state, paid large sums of the prize money to the regime, but was carefully controlled – his parents, for example, were not allowed to travel at the same time as Ivan. In 1986, Lendl also dropped out and was granted political asylum in the US. After the wall came down in 1989, Czech tennis flourished again on a wide front, with many coaches who had fled to the West now returning home to continue to develop the sport.
Tennis, national identity, body and ethnicity
A chapter by Kristian Naglo focuses on the two German tennis icons Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, both extremely successful in the world top tennis from the mid-1980s and about 10 years onwards, with many victories in the biggest tournaments; both also won Olympic gold. However, the chapter is mainly about their role in strengthening national German identity and the enormous attention around the two in the German media. This theme of individual sports stars as creators of national identity by being in the media focus is repeated in several chapters, e.g. about France, England, Australia and Argentina.
Another frequent theme is the media development around tennis, as well as the story of how women in tennis broke away from the men and during the 1960s and 70s formed their own tennis association, their own professional league and eventually their own tournaments around the world. This is a success story for women’s elite sports that is worth highlighting in general as an example of a sport where women have actually created and received good financial conditions to be able to live as professionals at elite level, unlike many other sports where women at the elite level even today have to contend with scarce economic circumstances. Of course, this development also includes opportunities for the leading players, women and men, to get sponsors, advertising assignments and in some cases also develop their own brand of products.
In connection with this, there are a couple of chapters that reflect on questions about sexualization and the body in the world of sports, a theme that has been and is particularly prominent around the sport of tennis. Historically, there are several big stars who, in addition to their tennis skills, are also recognized for their appearances, with their bodies being objectified in advanced advertising campaigns. Some of the most famous are, for example, the Russians Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova, who both, albeit primarily Kournikova, became at least as well-known for advertising various products as for being talented tennis players. The story of them and of tennis as a sport in the front line of the fashion and advertising industry is presented in several chapters.
Finally, I would like to mention a theme about race and ethnicity around tennis which is dealt with in a couple of interesting chapters, dealing with the racial issue in American sports, including tennis, and also portraying prominent individuals in tennis, such as Arthur Ashe, Evonne Goolagong, Yanick Noah and Serena Williams.
The ambition of the Routledge Handbook of Tennis to reflect the development of the sport in terms of history, culture and politics has resulted in a comprehensive tome that includes basically every conceivable perspective on the sport of tennis. The arrangement with 45 separate chapters and 49 different authors inevitably means a certain snippetification in the shorter chapters. There will also be a lot of overlaps, where the same themes, events and prominent people appear in several places in different chapters by different authors. But apart from that, there is a multitude of information on offer in the book, not only from the sport of tennis, but also historical perspectives and issues with a connection to sport and society in general. Each chapter also contains huge and excellent references lists, which together provide tips on hundreds of international sport history studies for those who want to go further and immerse themselves in the richness of issues that this book on tennis deals with.
Shame about the almost prohibitive retail price, though.
Copyright © Johnny Wijk 2020
(English translation by Kjell E. Eriksson)
Table of Content
Part I: Historical Developments (Commercialization, Professionalization and the Creation of Tennis Celebrities; Globalization and Internationalization of Tennis)
Part II: Culture and Representations (Gender, Race, Class, the Arts and Media)
Part III: Politics and Social Issues (Governance, Nationalism and Identity: Race, Gender, Class and Disability)