Double Faulting

By Tonguette, Peter | New Criterion, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Double Faulting


Tonguette, Peter, New Criterion


E. Digby Baltzell

Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar.

Transaction Publishers, 520 pages, $29.95

In the almost two decades since the late sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote his well-regarded chronicle of men's tennis, the sophomoric behavior of contemporary professional players that he deplored has become ubiquitous. In years past, the tongue-lashing an umpire recently endured from the aggrieved singles player Viktor Troicki (captured in a widely circulated video clip) would have lived on in infamy, but today we'll remember it only until the next display of rude court conduct hits the Internet.

Baltzell's classic Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar charts the history of tennis from its graceful origins to its current sad state. His charming anecdotes and vivid profiles are drawn from an age of nobility and grace, an age that came to an end in 1968 when the well-established amateur game gave in to economic pressures, resulting in the international professional circuit we see today. Even in this new "open era" he finds a few Arthur Ashes to hold the line against the influences of the world's John McEnroes, but even writing in 1995 he could foresee the demise of the game's character-building qualities in the face of a craven, unchecked conviction that "one must do anything and pay any price to win"

Since time has done nothing but vindicate Baltzell's predictions, I recently asked myself why I had not reread Sporting Gentlemen in its entirety in several years. This reprint from Transaction Publishers provided an answer to my question, but it is not the one I was expecting: Though enlivened by both its author's boyish enthusiasm for the great practitioners of the game and his spirited scorn for those who brought it low, the book is a long slog for all but the most fanatical tennis aficionados. Baltzell overwhelms the average reader with a superfluity of names, dates, and matches, seeming to speak unintentionally for an attitude he eloquently decries throughout: the modern view of tennis, far from being a small part of life, as a kind of be-all, end-all.

In support of the former perspective, Baltzell offers the case of Malcolm Whitman, a national singles champion from 1898 to 1900, who was urged by his father to end his stellar playing career to focus on law school. In Baltzell's painstaking, exhausting profiles of seemingly every notable male tennis player of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, instead of upholding the conviction that the noblest function of sport is "as a means of cultivating a vigor of body which, in turn, led to a vigor of mind and character," at times we find the spirit of an unusually refined groupie. …

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