THE GREAT GAME OF TENNIS

The Prime Minister of Australia, in a mood both reminiscent and prophetic, talks about his country's national love and its lessons in sportsmanship
August 28, 1955

Lawn tennis, as games go, is a new game. It was not so many years ago that it was a polite garden-party accomplishment. I can, myself, remember the jeering remarks of the "working" youth as white-flanneled players went by. Yet today, on thousands of public and municipal courts, no other than the "working" youth is hard at it. The game of the privileged few, in less than half a century, has become the game of the many. This reflects in part a marked rise in the standards of living, but it also shows the vast attraction of the game.

A few nights ago I was astonished to hear Sir Norman Brookes, in a reminiscent mood, recall that when he first played as a boy the tennis ball had no cover as we know it today. We can say, therefore, that the development of today's game, and the implements used in it, spans the lifetime of one man.

LONG SKIRTS AND UNDERARM

I am a much younger man than Norman Brookes, having been born in 1894. Yet I can remember, as if it were yesterday, how some ruling woman champions served underarm, wearing skirts down to the ground, playing a steady baseline game, never venturing to the net. The first woman to go up to volley and to smash was regarded as a miracle or a monstrosity, according to the point of view.

In Australia the popularity of tennis is enormous. It is actively played by hundreds of thousands of people, and (such are our fortunate conditions) from one year's end to another. Australia's eminence in the game surprises many people. "How does it happen," they say, "that a country which has only just reached a population of 9,000,000 can so consistently have produced teams which, over a long period of years, have been outmatched in success only by the United States?"

The answer is simple enough. Australia, for tennis purposes, is one large California. The varying climates of the six states have this in common: They favor outdoor sport and outdoor living. Material standards of life are high; leisure is abundant. Good food and fresh air are the common lot. Most dwelling houses stand in their own grounds and gardens. For all these reasons, our inbred love of sport finds opportunity and expression. Even the most hardened theoretical socialist finds in games a satisfaction for his natural zest for private enterprise and individual initiative. I know that people have been heard to say reproachfully that Australians are too fond of sport. If this meant that we were a nation of mere onlookers at professional sporting spectacles, the criticism would be powerful. But the truth is that we are a nation of games-players who look at others only on occasions. There are, in Australia, 250,000 registered competitive players, plus at least 500,000 who play nonofficial tennis in a purely private way. Behind all the traditional informality and indiscipline with which we are credited, you will find the fitness, the resourcefulness and the competitive spirit which have made the Australian soldier world famous in war and which, in peace, have wrought a national development and construction which have earned the praise of so many perceptive visitors.

Thus it is that tennis has taken its place among the great popular games in Australia and has become one of the influences which form the national characteristics.

Yet one of the fascinating things to witness is how the popularity of a game can affect the game itself, and the position of its leading players. When a game becomes so popular as a spectacle for thousands or scores of thousands, the game becomes big business. To the public or private provision of thousands of tennis courts there is added (I emphasize added, because the active playing of the game continues to expand) the large-scale and costly provision of spectator accommodations, the intensive organization of competitions, the handling of interstate and international tours.

All this has meant an inevitable change in the activities and nature of the leading amateur players. The old amateurism has been replaced by the new, and we have seen the rise of professional play.

There were great advantages in the old amateur days. I will not dwell on them too long, for there is no more weakening emotion than yearning for the "good old days." The times change and we must change with them. But I will briefly state what I believe those advantages to have been and will then examine more closely what I believe to be the reasons why the old amateurism at the top level has passed away.

As a lad, just good enough at the game to know what it was about and how strokes ought to be played, I first saw Norman Brookes, Rod Heath and A. W. Dunlop; some years later there was my friend Gerald Patterson. Let me assume them to be examples of what I call the "old" amateurism.

Each was a distinct individual, with unforgettable characteristics of style and play. Heath had beautifully controlled ground strokes. Dunlop was a born doubles player, with a fine sense of position. Gerald Patterson had a villainous backhand drive, but could rely on the most violent service I have ever seen. Nowadays, when so many first-rate players seem cast in the same mold, when intense coaching has created so much standardization, I frequently find it difficult to remember other than facial differences between the playing characteristics of half a dozen of the greatest players.

Put this down to my ignorance or lack of perception if you like. But is it mere perversity on my part to say that Brookes lives in my mind's eye because of his nonconformity? He was one of the first to adopt and modify the then new "American" service. In his use of it speed was secondary; placement was of the essence. It was as deep as the service line would allow. Its direction was such that the receiver always had to move quite a lot, to forehand or backhand, to play it. As soon as he served, Brookes moved in. Such was his control of service direction and length that he limited the scope of the return, and even appeared by some magic to control its actual direction. In spite of this, powerful opponents would seek to check him by driving to his feet as he advanced to the normally fatal midcourt half-volleying position. They soon discovered that to Brookes the half-volley was a weapon of attack, not of defense. Time after time I have seen him sweeping half-volleys first to one deep corner, then to the other, with his opponent sweating up and down in vain.

A DIGNIFIED DEMON

What a player! His long trousers perfectly pressed, on his head a peaked tweed or cloth cap, on his face the inscrutable expression of a pale-faced Red Indian, no sign of sweat or bother, no temperamental outbursts, no word to say except an occasional "well played." A slim and not very robust man, he combined an almost diabolical skill with a personal reserve, a dignity (yes, dignity) and a calm maturity of mind and judgment. I have sometimes suspected that a modern coach, given control, would have hammered out of him all the astonishing elements that made him in his day (and his day lasted for many years) the greatest player in the world.

Brookes was an "old" amateur. He had means adequate to enable him to indulge his hobby. He was not overplayed. There were few Davis Cup contests. Each match could be approached with a fresh mind and spirit.

But time has moved on. Big tennis has, as I have said, become big business. The cost of putting on good matches, with special stands and expensive organization and vast crowds of spectators have all involved today's player in almost continuous play, in tournament or exhibition games. Under the modern circumstances of high taxation, few people can afford such "leisure." The "old" amateur has, in Australia at any rate, practically disappeared from the top ranks. And so we have entered a period when some promising boy of 14 or 15, his education hardly begun, is picked out for coaching and development and joins the staff of some sporting-goods firm. Brookes played his first Davis Cup in 1905, at the age of 28; his last in 1920, at the age of 43 when, in the Challenge Round, he took both W. T. Tilden and W. M. Johnston to four sets; one of the most remarkable feats in lawn tennis history. Today a player is described as a "veteran" by his middle 20s.

There are those who will tell you that the "old" amateurs played when the game was "slower," and "softer," and that they could never have lived with the modern champions, with their "big" services and "fierce" overheads and "devastating" ground strokes. (You notice that I am a student of sporting journalese.) I do not decry the modern players, whose skill I admire, and who have given hundreds of thousands of us pleasure, when I say that both Tilden and Johnston, at their peak, could have beaten any 1955 amateur at his peak: and they were at their peak when Brookes played them.

But the "new" amateurism—the semiprofessionalism of the great sporting-goods firms (which, we must concede, have done much to develop the game) is here to stay, unless, indeed, it is replaced by complete professionalism or (as I think not improbably) international tennis becomes "open" to both amateur and professional, like golf or cricket. The alternative may well be that the professional promoters will come to regard the Davis Cup as a training ground for quite young amateur champions, to be recruited to the professional ranks later.

Whether we like it or not, the cost of maintaining modern international sporting teams and providing facilities for large armies of spectators to see them play inevitably tends to create a "business" atmosphere. There is another aspect of the matter. The modern proliferation of sporting journals and the expansion of the sporting pages of ordinary newspapers have led the talented, but young and mentally and emotionally immature champions into the glaring light of publicity—extravagant praise and biting criticism being more common than expert and moderate judgment. Too many are coming to regard the player as the bondslave of the public; we say that he has "obligations." If his form leaves him he is rejected and forgotten. If, at the height of his form, he abandons competitive sport in favor of a business or private career in some profession, he is not infrequently accused of "letting the public down." There are many youngish men living in some unskilled occupation today who are simply the victims of these processes. It is not to be wondered at that talented young amateurs increasingly gaze at the professional recruiter with an expectant eye.

I hope I will not be thought discourteous, if, writing for a distinguished sporting journal, I say more about the impact of a good deal of modern sporting journalism upon the lives and minds of young and talented players.

As every man engaged in public affairs knows, it takes a great deal of strength of mind and balance and experience to ignore ignorant criticism and to select and be influenced by informed and just criticism. Boys of 20, playing some game under the eyes of the entire world, under strain, would be phenomenal if they knew how to deal with the mental problems of ignoring or evaluating criticism. If some become swollen headed, as a result of extravagant praise, and others sullen or moody under extravagant blame, it is not to be wondered at. I have sometimes advised young champions at tennis or cricket to give up reading the criticisms until their current series of matches is over. This is on the very sound principle that, though real experts always write understanding, the pungent criticisms of players by those who do not and never have studied the game cannot possess much value.

There is, for those of us who love these games, nothing more pleasant than a vivid account of some match in the press or over the air. Both the ear and the imagination are stimulated. But the occasional extravagant commentator who thinks his opinions are more important than the story of the game is a constant irritant. Nor do I, for one, want to read lurid stories (usually quite fictitious) about alleged personal quarrels among players. It may be thought to be proof of advancing years if I say also that I still prefer a lively report of a Davis Cup match I cannot attend to a series of glossy paragraphs about the love life or matrimonial intentions of the players—but I do.

What is the effect of the Davis Cup or other contests on international relations? The accepted answer is "good." It appears to be widely believed that the spectacle of two or four young athletes fighting out a Davis Cup tie, or a Wimbledon or Forest Hills final, is in its very nature a contribution to international understanding and good will.

PLAYERS, CRITICS, SPECTATORS

This is, I think, substantially true; but it is not inevitably true. The truth is that it depends for the most part on the players, partly on the sporting critics, and of course partly on the spectators. A skillful but ill-tempered and uncontrolled player, glaring at umpires and spectators alike, can in an hour do his own country's reputation for sportsmanship immeasurable harm. You know how fond we all are of generalizing from single instances. An American slams his racquet into the ground and makes rude noises at a linesman. "Ah," says a non-American spectator—"These Americans! Always want to have their own way!" An Australian, at Forest Hills, puts on a childish act. "Look!" says an American spectator—"The trouble with these guys from down under is that they can't take a defeat without blaming somebody else." Both statements are nonsense. But they are made, all too frequently.

As the simple onlooker, I do not find the reasons for these occasional tantrums very difficult to understand. It might be useful to try to analyze the problem a little.

Sporting crowds are anything but fools, particularly when the game they are watching (which most of them have played) requires great skill and much subtlety of tactics and execution. There will, of course, be some fools among them; and some inscrutable law of Providence seems to have ordained that fools are frequently more vocal than wise men. But in Australia, about which I can speak with closer knowledge, a great crowd at a Davis Cup tie sees and understands a great deal of what is going on. It is quick to distinguish between the bad temper of a player whose conceit makes him blame somebody else for his own error, and the honest annoyance with himself of a player who is tensed up to do his best for his side, and falls into a blunder. No more popular player or more creditable American ever came to Australia to play Davis Cup than Ted Schroeder. Yet frequently I have seen him going back to serve after netting an easy volley, shaking his head and talking to himself with whimsical but violent disapproval. We all loved him for it. It was a natural and human part of his keenness and his will to win.

It is my own opinion that alleged "incidents" are grossly exaggerated in the reports. If we require, as we do nowadays, that mere boys should devote their lives to the game, in spite of their immaturity in general matters, we should not hypocritically expect that their demeanor will at all times and under all circumstances resemble that of a student of mental and moral philosophy. It is not uncommon to find an elderly businessman, fresh from roaring at some underling across his desk or over the telephone, glaring reprovingly at the tennis player who has displayed a sudden spark of ordinary humanity. My own complaint about the young champions of today is not that they complain too much, but that they smile too little. Perhaps it is inheritance: someone once said that the "English take their pleasures sadly."

To sum up, I think that by and large the players in Davis Cup matches have done a first-class job for international good will and understanding. The United States, since the war, has sent to Australia many fine players. With trivial exceptions, they have been outstanding athletes, intelligent and courteous. They have helped Australians to think well of Americans as a whole. I have never listened to one of them making a speech of thanks or of congratulation without marveling at their poise, their fluency, their choice of words. They have made me an admirer of American education.

I have one very happy recollection of how a player can go wrong, and then go right so splendidly that his original error is almost affectionately remembered. Tony Trabert, a superb young champion, was defeated in a crucial match at Melbourne in 1953; defeated by a stroke or two in a match he had looked like winning. In his bitter disappointment he made publicly rude remarks about the behavior of the crowd. (The crowd had, in fact, blended patriotism with judgment very fairly!) There were adverse comments on Trabert all over Australia.

A GRACIOUS SPEECH

Last year, at Sydney, Trabert and Seixas took the Davis Cup from us by the most concentrated exhibition of skill, fitness and determination I have seen for a long time. Speeches were made when the Cup was handed over. Trabert's turn came. There were 25,000 in the stands, and probably a couple of million listening in. Trabert had a magnificent ovation. He smiled, looked around the stands, and said: "Thank you for that. I was wondering what you would do. A year ago I said some foolish, things. But I think I can tell you that I have learned from experience!" The applause was deafening. The Stars and Stripes flew high!

I wish (if you can print such a heresy) that I could be as sure of the contribution to international good will of the sporting critics and writers. The best are, of course, superb. But to paraphrase the old nursery rhyme—

But when they're bad they're horrid.

All of the great international games are deprived of some of the good they otherwise do by the type of writer who looks for mischief—ferrets out and exaggerates personal incidents; writes about tennis as if it were a civil (and not very civil) war; and ends up by producing all the news not fit to print.

Still, great games and great nations can survive such blemishes. When I come toward the sunset of my own life and find myself thinking of tennis, it will not be the sensation-merchants I will recall. It will be the eager figures of Rosewall and Trabert and Seixas and, further back into what will be a misty past, the fierce power of Patterson's service and the calm, white-clad mastery of Norman Brookes. These are the figures that live.

PHOTOSIR NORMAN BROOKES, pioneer of modern game, was pre-World War I master. PHOTOROBERT GORDON MENZIES, an old tennis buff himself, wrote this article at SI's request, as a contribution to the game he loves and "an adventure in the field of journalism."
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Eagle (-2)
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