Why Do Artists Love Tennis? An Investigation

No sport is as ripe for artistic interpretation, nor as aesthetically pleasing and psychologically captivating, as tennis. No, seriously.

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Jan 23 2015, 5:10pm

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Tennis is a romantic game, all chartreuse streaks and color-soaked courts, brilliant white lines and clothes. It is a sport evocative of class—both the type that separates rich from poor and the type certain graceful and cosmopolitan people are said to have. Yet it is also the provenance of Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, the Williams sisters and Renee Richards: activists who faced down society's mores and won victories on and off the court. King defeating Riggs, Ashe triumphing at the All England, Richards simply being allowed to play: moments of activism in their own right, standards that the athlete could carry into the world beyond sport.

Similarly iconoclastic, but less important, were the clothes they wore. Tennis is played not in uniforms, but in fashions. Think Sharapova resplendent in classic Wimbledon style, a blanc canvas, or Serena Williams, menacing and glamorous in a black catsuit, or a neon headband struggling mightily against Agassi's Samson-like locks. The clothes make statements. They are physical shorthand for dramatic social stands. Then to put all these looks in motion and do so in Paris or New York City, London or Melbourne or Dubai; it is no coincidence that the cultural capitals of the word are also tennis capitals.

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Play is defined by the elegance of perfectly calculated angles, the masterful application of spin, the power of the serve reducing distances to mere fragments of seconds. With apologies to Ian Darke and the entire nation of Brazil, tennis is the most beautiful game, evocative of the singular combat of boxing but fought in a different stratosphere, as demanding of physical mastery as gymnastics but not beholden to subjective judges: a perfect conflation of drama and effortless pain.

It is of little wonder, then, that the game has a rarified position in the artistic sphere, drawn upon by artists and novelists as a vehicle for explorations both analogous and aesthetic. Among other contests it may have no equal.

Arthur Ashe, via Wikimedia Commons

"I think tennis is a really fascinating sport, from a conceptual standpoint," Kyle Fletcher told me. A Chicago based artist and graphic designer—he has worked for Leo Burnett, the Chicago Bulls, and General Electric, among other clients—Fletcher finds tennis fascinating for its its pure aesthetic.

"In just thinking about the conceptual rigor of tennis ... those geometric constraints I'm really attracted to. I have a graphic design background, so I really appreciate these simple squares and the alleys, and just how that looks very beautiful."

Fletcher is working on a series of tennis court studies. Within the simple lines, each court can appear massively different; one, his first, is an air-brushed masked print in the same iconic shade of the tennis ball, a seemingly simple design that would be impossible to play upon in real life without specially hued balls, while another—larger but rendered in the same, simple-lines format—has a gentle gradient from Mexican pink to persimmon reminiscent of pollution-enhanced sunsets.

"I love the subtle varieties in real tennis courts, and I think that kind of spurs my imagination, like, what else could they do if tennis were to really take of? If sites like HypeBeast and more fashion-forward folks were into it, what could happen?" Fletcher said. "I think some really wild [stuff]."

As if answering his own hypothetical, Fletcher has begun constructing courts which take the form even further, from perler beads assembled in a vaguely Southwestern motif to an abstracted design flocked on to a skateboard. Perhaps most intriguing of all is "Trout vs Trout," wherein one half a court was placed before a mirror in Chicago and the other in Austin, for an imaginary match which spanned both space and time.

While the graphically inclined would no doubt find the layouts of other athletic playing courts and fields intriguing, there is something special about the tennis court: pleasingly symmetrical, relatively small in size, and, since they contain at most four contestants, never so crowded that the design can be smothered by action. One does not play atop a tennis court so much as inside it. The same basic design is utilized by women and men, young children and the elderly, ball-chasing buoyant players and hard faced, serious drillers.

"It's set up with particular parameters in mind—like there's a doubles alley; it's a very functional grid, and it's a grid that I connect with," Fletcher said.

"It's a geometry that has a story to it."

Bjorn Borg, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a second level of beauty to be found in tennis, barely perceptible to the naked eye, and even then only in glimpses: an angled face, gritted teeth, a slumping set of shoulders. This is the unseen place where matches are won and lost. The mental tennis court, one could say—or better yet, the emotional one.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates tennis's affair with literature than its appearance in two of the most prominent and polarizing English-language works of the 20th century: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

Foster Wallace not only laced his skull-cracking opus with tennis, but wrote about it in memoirs, articles, and book reviews. Growing up on the kinds of simple public courts which the popularity of Ashe helped blossom (freeing the game, once and for all, from the exclusive grasp of the country club set), Wallace saw in tennis players what he so desperately wished for himself: a strong and steady mind, tempered steel with a bullwhip's impetus. "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes," a brief memoir for Harper's, reveals Wallace's love of the hypnotic state a perfectly performed tennis drill—all muscle memory and blank space—could put one into:

" ... once the first pain and fatigue of butterflies [a training drill] are got through, if both guys are good enough so that there are few unforced errors to break up the rally, a kind of fugue-state opens up inside you and your concentration telescopes toward a still point and you lose awareness of your limbs and the soft shushes of your shoe's slide and whatever's outside the lines of the court, and pretty much all you know then is the bright ball and the octangled butterfly outline of its path across the court, and at Hessel Park the court was such a deep piney color that the flights of the fluorescent balls stayed on one's visual screen for a few extra seconds, leaving a trail."

That moment of hard earned peace seems almost religious, and takes on even more meaning in light of Wallace's struggles with mental health disorders. It is clear from his writing on tennis that Wallace revered Tracy Austin and Roger Federer in part because he revered the triumph of the mind that they were able to regularly achieve. In Wallace's work, both Austin and Federer are used more as icons than people, examples of a zen-like place Wallace seemed to believe athletes are capable of reaching.

Nabokov, while less concerned with tennis per se in his writings, regularly invoked the notion of being at play, the entirety of existence a grand game, which comes shining through most brightly in the darkly humorous Lolita, a novel whose very form—heart-rending beauty in service of vicious perversion—is cruelly hilarious. In fact, the sense of play extended to Nabokov's prose on a sentence level, as he was a frequent employer of word play and symbolism.

This extends to subtle tennis puns. Upon watching his Russian wife leave with her lover, Lolita's narrator, Humbert Humbert, is distraught that he never applied "the backhand slap with which I ought to have hit her across the cheekbone according to the rules of the movies." While the backhand in question is not mentioned in any kind of sporting fashion, it will return on the tennis court.

Humbert finds supreme beauty in tennis, that although not limited to Lolita herself (he speaks of one "nymphet," a school tennis champ he hardly met, as existing to him "only as a flash of natural sunshine on an indoor court") is especially powerful when Lolita is holding serve. The appearances of tennis in the book, while relatively fleeting, holds an outsize importance.

Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich, chair of the English department at Davidson College and editor of Nabokov Studies, confirmed for me that this is not merely a sports writer's bias.

"There is a passage at the end of Lolita which is not a part of the novel, but is Nabokov's reflection on the writing of the novel, in which he claims that writing about Lolita during the tennis game is one of the secret 'subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted,'" Kuzmanovich wrote via email.

The passage revolves around Lolita's tennis prowess, which so enthralls Humbert that he practically wallows in battery acid at the knowledge he would see her play no more. "That I could have had all her strokes, all her enchantments, immortalized in segments of celluloid, makes me moan to-day with frustration," he laments. Her physical perfection stirs him to arousal, and he becomes obsessed with it (a dark mirror of Wallace's yearning for the perfect i.e. blank mind.)

"There was nothing to chose between her forehand and backhand drives:" Humbert writes, "they were mirror images of one another—my very loins still tingle with those pistol retorts repeated by crisp echoes and Electra's cries."

Nabokov, who was also a boxing and chess aficionado, made a practical choice by incorporating tennis into Lolita. He made use of the game's cosmopolitan, aristocratic airs as well, in the creation of Humbert Humbert, whose old world charm is embodied by his love of the sport. Tennis reveals his shiny veneer, and also reveals—through passages like the above—what a terrible beast he actually is.

"If you look at the way in which ... the language plays itself out, it [tennis] is used by Nabokov to make Humbert appear less the suave, sophisticated European ... and more of a cruel and violent wretch," Kuzmanovich said.

The game's great beauty and class connotations made it the singular weapon with which to do so.

Serena Williams by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

According to Kuzmanovich—who pronounces Lolita, by the way, with a perfect three-step trip of the tongue down the palate—one of the first things Nabokov did upon moving to Los Angeles was find a tennis court to play on. While boxing has long been the gold standard for sport in art, no one is expecting Joyce Carol Oates to lace them up, and it is doubtful anything other than playful batting came about when Warhol and Basquiat slipped on the Everlasts. Forever the domain of the romantically poor, obviously primal yet with just enough rule of law so as to not be inherently terrifying to watch, boxing is almost too perfect for art.

One cannot write or depict boxing without leaning on some stereotype or the other, and those who overcome the cliches, like Oates or, to a lesser degree, Norman Mailer, do so by virtue of their own immense talent; an artist conquers boxing, pins it down and dissects it, or, barring that, embraces it in pantomime.

Compare this to Kyle Fletcher's work—playing within the lines—or Tolstoy's Darya Alexandrovna, playing in an invisible, but in many ways, more constrictive set of lines of her own. Tennis is a game which requires two to become beautiful, and an adherence to law to make transcendent. To paraphrase Robert Frost (he was talking about free verse), to do something with no regard for boundaries can be a cop out—playing tennis without the net.

In its constant give and take, constant pushing up against its own boundaries, tennis is among our most nuanced contests. That so much of the competition is imperceptible and can only be captured in abstraction only makes it more apt for artistic treatment. There a few things so hypnotic as a world-class volley, eyes and heads and hearts and stomachs turning with the rhythm, and when the service is broken, we are still left with the shining winner and the sweat-soaked loser, down and out on the green grass of Wimbledon or the orange clay of Roland Garros.

Tennis is dignified in a way that boxing isn't, and allows us to duel in a civilized manner, the pistols-at-dawn to boxing's barroom brawl. In Nabokov's masterpiece, Humbert only strikes Lolita once, a "tremendous backhand cut that caught her smack on her hot hard little cheekbone," and Nabokov knew this was all it took. As all sports, tennis is more than just a game. The brilliant white lines that mark a court dissolve when it comes to the space between tennis and art.