Anyone for tennis?

Dave Kellaway reviews David Berry’s A Peoples History of Tennis, Pluto Press (2020)

Naomi Osaka, who won this year US tennis Open, wore a black face mask with the name of a black person killed by racist police in each match she played. It helped make Black Lives Matter a truly mass movement. Does this event help clinch the central argument of David Berry’s book that ‘tennis is a truly radical sport’? (p.8) This review will evaluate how right he is about that.

The author provides us with a radical history of tennis. He links class, gender, race, and dominant ideology to a colourful picture of the men and women who built it into a sport with the ‘third greatest reach on the planet after football and hockey’ (p.5). The book is right that tennis ‘is a more progressive sport than its public perception suggests…and that underneath its establishment image, tennis is a surprisingly radical game’. (p.4)

Started by Mavericks

Tennis was one of the last of the mass sports to be established. Britain was the leading capitalist power in the world with the biggest empire, a growing middle class, and a working-class whose wages on average were higher than in other countries. It was started in the early 1870s by an entrepreneur, Walter Wingfield, who had also been a career military man. He set out some rules and provided the boxes of tennis kits – nets, posts, and balls – to be set out on the lawns of country houses and rectories.

Its popularity spread like wildfire and Wingfield made a lot of money from these sets that cost the equivalent of £350 today. His military connections helped him promote it throughout the empire and he got endorsements from society figures and even royalty. The big constituency was the growing army of professionals, lawyers, accountants, doctors who had flexible working time too. It was ideal for networking and more appealing than the hard physical grind of team sports. Crucially it:

‘enabled middle-class aspiration to meet upper-class insecurity within a framework of appropriate gentlemanly conduct and budding female emancipation’ (Robert Lake, A Social History of Tennis, p 16, cited by Berry)

The new middle classes had more leisure time and could afford this sport. They would network upwards at the same time. For men who were not keen on playing the more macho team sports of football, rugby or cricket it was quite attractive. Here I think the author goes too far in ascribing these men as expressing new masculinity more interested in the elegance, playfulness, and artistry of tennis than the rugged mores of the football field. Although it certainly did attract ‘men who were intellectual, aesthetic, pro-suffrage and interested in the novels of Gissing and Hardy’ (p23) I think there is no evidence to over-generalise or over-radicalise this phenomenon.


However, Wingfield, from the off, wanted the sport to be one played by men and women in the same social setting. It provided the space for the growing number of women who wanted to be more independent and express themselves more physically than with the more sedate croquet or bowls. It was good for his business but it established a protagonist role for women in tennis that you do not find to the same extent in other sports. Women from the start helped shape the culture, spectacle, and etiquette of the game.

The game was as much about guile as strength and played with new soft rubber balls. It allowed women to travel around the country on the affordable railway network to participate in tournaments, often at seaside resorts. They were truly the first sporting feminists. The central character in Radcliffe Hall’s lesbian masterpiece, Well of Loneliness, was based on Toupie Lowther, one of the early star women players. Women began to relax the strict Victorian dress code with new tennis clothing. There was nevertheless some pushback from the male administrators of the game. Lottie Dod, another leading player who later went to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, had to take on publically in print a top All England Club official to get restrictions lifted. Women had to contest the stereotype of the frail middle-class lady who sustained Victorian patriarchy. They had to rebut ridiculous claims of dangers to their reproductive capacity or worse to their moral development.

Flash forward to 1970 and the great Billie Jean King. Outraged at the vast gap between women’s prize money and the men’s, she organised a separate women’s tour in the teeth of the official tennis world’s opposition. This established a ‘market’ for women’s tennis as a spectacular contest in its own right and forced through equal pay although it took Wimbledon until 2007 to agree to this. Billie Jean even managed to use the Bobby Riggs challenge that he could beat her in 1973 to the advantage of women’s tennis – she won. (cf. the 2017 movie The Battle of the Sexes)

Members and their tennis clubs

A people’s history has to also cover the ordinary players, the millions who played and still play the game every week. The rise of voluntary run clubs around the country extended the playing of tennis away from the country house and the rectories into the suburbs which were being built to house the new white-collar middle class. So the previous alliance, between the upper and upper-middle classes in tennis, was extended to the new middle, and even lower, middle class. Property developers of the new suburbs would even include a site for a tennis club as an added attraction and community hub. A distinguishing feature of these clubs was that unlike many sports clubs they were not men only.

Women may not have captured the committees running the clubs but they were often a majority of members and held their own. Historically the mixed nature of clubs helped avoid the often heard labelling of tennis as a bit sissy or not a manly game. Most public schools for a long time refused to play tennis for that reason.

Social events were an important factor in attracting members and many people met partners there. Club days were deliberately less competitive with mixed doubles and organised teas. However, as Berry points out the working class was still mostly excluded, as were Jewish or Black people. Trial periods ‘playing in’ were used to keep the wrong sort of people out. Tennis clubs were not all snobbish and exclusionary. For example, local church clubs were often less stuck up and inclusive. I remember growing up playing in a catholic based club in Bristol and we always experienced the neighbouring Redland club where tournaments were held as being far superior to our little place.

Berry is right to point out the values of local non-profit self-organisation of such clubs – albeit mostly middle class –as opposed to the big commercial John Lloyd type centres which are profit-led.

Most commentators agree that the way tennis clubs have been run has harmed the development of higher-level performers – hence the long wait from Fred Perry in the 1930s to Andy Murray before Britain had another male winner. The Americans, Australians and now the Europeans have dominated the game.

Many local authorities did build tennis courts and millions, often more working-class played there. Attempts were made to form park players’ tournaments and federations, particularly in the north but they never really broke through in the same way that public courts in the USA produced players like the Williams sisters. There is an interesting chapter entitled, Socialists, where Berry looks at the attempts of the Labour party, trade unions and coops to set up their own sports clubs and even organise a ‘workers’ Wimbledon. This shows how the labour movement in the 30s through to the 1960s still to a degree managed its own space within civil society in a way that is completely lost today. However, the writer rather over eggs the pudding – at its height there were only 5000 members of these clubs and the tennis tournaments were quite small, particularly compared to workers’ organised sports in Europe.

In his conclusion, Berry waxes a little too lyrical on the ‘anarchic generosity’ of the tennis club. He uses the example of the player wanting to play with someone of the same or better level irrespective of their class background. In other words, it is the game that counts not class. Elsewhere in the book, he showed how the clubs kept working people out. You may have a drink with your local postman after a hard match but it does not mean you will share his or her class or political outlook the minute you are out of the club. In any case, this sense of being in a sporting bubble where outside status or power is suspended happens in most sports in my opinion.

The gentleman-amateur ideology

Other countries like the USA or Australia took a more scientific approach to the game and great coaches emerged leaving the home of tennis behind. Coaching was historically underdeveloped in this country because of the ideology of the gentleman amateur.

This rather patrician, public school attitude focussed on how you played the game – as a stoical, good loser, a gentleman and was resolutely opposed to winning at all costs and humiliating your opponent.

Berry tends to suggest this ideology was developed to project a different sort of manliness to counter the labelling of the game as sissy or even a bit queer. I think it is a bit more complex and is tied to a broader British upper-class ruling ideology. Ruling class belief in its right and capacity to rule was materially based on its huge empire which in turn helped it keep an often deferential working class under control. Sports was a way of reproducing an ideology of ruling class ‘respect’ for fairness, keeping to the rules and being a good loser – just like it wanted its working class to be like.

British exceptionalism and a belief that other nations do not respect the spirit of the game creates a nationalist narrative. Boris Johnson – who I used to see play at Islington tennis centre – affects some of this demeanour. You look more human, less threatening as the bumbling Woosterist amateur. But the British would play cricket one week with the Indian natives and mow them down the next.

Of course, later in the twentieth century, this sham of the gentleman amateur broke down as tennis players (and indeed this happened in other sports) demanded a fairer share of the huge profits being made on the back of their talents.

Tennis today – is it a radical sport?

A good indicator of how radical tennis is today might be to look at whether young black people access tennis at every level in the way they do with soccer. Local tennis clubs tend to recruit members in their own image and Berry shows, with some examples, how they have failed to reach out to white or black working-class youth. Partly it is a result of very few role models who exist in abundance for football and the lack of enough black coaches.

The Lawn Tennis Association reaps huge amounts of money each year from Wimbledon but still tends to go mostly through the clubs. One route would be to develop local community clubs based on the local council courts. Hackney tennis club where I play is referenced as a club like this (p.203). Certainly, it has made some progress. More black and minority people play and there are some black coaches but the overwhelming majority are not. It has been most successful in getting over 55-year-olds to play. Indeed socialists should not uncritically echo the perennial cry to the LTA to find the next Andy Murray but rather prioritise mass participation of all ages and people. Playing as long as you can stand and hold a racket is a great way of keeping fit and healthy and society gains too.

I learnt a lot from this book and it does rescue the radical elements of tennis history particularly with respect to gender. The fact that Andy Murray had a female coach, Amelie Mauresmo, and regularly corrects the tennis pundits when they ignore or downplay women players is evidence of how tennis can help to produce new forms of masculinity.

However, this sport is not radical in itself. No sport is radical or reactionary per se. Neither are they something we want to destroy in the same way as capitalist exploitation. We will play sports after the socialist revolution just like we will produce art. Sports are sites for struggle. Their structures are always over-determined by the capitalist system and its contingent ideologies. Until there is a rupture of the system the processes of the sport will reflect the overall conditions of that system’s survival.

Mind you all this theorising will never really capture the sheer joy of serving the ace, hitting a cross-court winner or nailing that volley. Or of watching someone like Federer do it even better. Dave Berry gets that. As someone may have said tennis is like a love affair you never tire of.

A People’s History of Tennis can be purchased from Pluto Books here.

Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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