Tennis between covers
Watching the thrilling, draining epic of an Australian Open final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (oh, why did Federer simply fall apart in that final set?), I thought of – no, not the Wimbledon showdown between Federer and Nadal in July last year – but that other epochal face-off that is the touchstone of greatness as far as tennis matches go for an entire generation. If you are of a certain age, you’d have got it by now: yes, Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final.
Thinking of that match got me on to thinking of sport and literature, and how the two are twins. If you see the sense of narrative that sport offers, its drama and unpredictability, coincidences and patterns, you’ll know why sport has lent itself to great literature. Unlike, say, boxing (Joyce Carol Oates) or baseball (Don DeLillo, Philip Roth) or football (Nick Hornby, Pete Davies) or golf (John Updike), tennis hasn’t inspired as much great literature as you think it would have.
But there are gems. And here are some of my favourite ones.
1. That Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final, for instance, is at the heart of an intelligent, short, delightful book, On Being John McEnroe by Tim Adams. Like all good sport books, this isn’t about the sport itself but around the sport. It has at its centre McEnroe (that incredible player and character) and it examines the game – and the culture around it – at a cusp in its history.
Adams is smart and insightful; he is the sort of writer who sees McEnroe – as this Observer review shows – as “the man-boy who seemed to be perpetually in conflict with the world and with himself”.
Adams thinks of JD Salinger when he thinks of McEnroe. He saw in McEnroe something of the rebellious spirit of Holden Caulfield, hero of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, “an authentic role model in a world of adult phonies”.
2. Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault is about two professional tennis players who are married to each other. It is, like Shriver’s acclaimed, bestselling novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, relentlessly bleak and sharp. And it is as good in its details of the tennis circuit as in its portrayal of a disintegrating marriage. I’d reviewed it when it was published in 2005.
3. Talking of rivalry, Johnette Howard’s The Rivals is a sharp analysis of one of the great rivalries in the history of the game: Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova. Starting in 1975, every year for 12 years, the No.1 ranking in women’s tennis belonged to either Evert or Navratilova.
Like Borg and McEnroe, these two women were opposites of each other. Evert was the embodiment of femininity, the darling of the establishment, a baseliner who was the epitome of imperturbable, metronomic accuracy. Navratilova was a rebel, a defector, a champion of gay rights, a voluble, demonstrative woman who took serve-and-volley tennis for women to where it had never been before. They had only two things in common: a desire, more consuming perhaps than any other, to be World No 1 and a belief, stronger than perhaps any other, that being second best was just as bad as last.
The Rivals convincingly evokes the social and political temper of those tumultuous times of which the Martina-Chris rivalry is an enduring symbol and which prefigured the sense of spectacle, mass appeal and sexiness that are so much a part of the women’s game today. Read the review in The New York Times.
4. But the most laugh-aloud funny, intelligent description of a tennis match that I can think of turns up in a book about tennis (or even around tennis). It comes in Martin Amis’s Money, a high-octane, modern classic which is essentially a riff on the 1980s. Get the book. And once you’ve read the marvellous set piece I am referring to, tell me what you thought.