In recent decades, sport has become recognized increasingly as an important site through which to examine broader society, including its history, culture and politics. Since the 1960s, sociologists and historians have been researching sport and leisure practices in a serious, scholarly way, with their attention initially drawn to the global, mass-spectator team sports of soccer, baseball, cricket, rugby, (American) football and basketball. The sports of golf, track-and-field, ice hockey and horse-racing also received scholarly attention, but the omission of tennis from early academic scrutiny was one “research gap” that caught the attention of social scientists. In 1983, historian William J. Baker, in a summary paper on the state of British sport history, described the scholarly marginalization of tennis as “one of the most baffling gaps in the entire literature.” The same was certainly true in North American sport history, yet only modest advances were made in the initial years following Baker’s astute observation.
By the late 1990s, the only books offering a critical perspective on this popular sport rich with cultural nuance and history were Heiner Gillmeister’s magisterial Tennis: A Cultural History and E. Digby Baltzell’s comprehensive but value-laden Sporting Gentlemen: Men’s Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar. Even including the handful of well-researched texts authored by journalists, broadcasters and other non-academic writers—including John Feinstein, Peter Bodo, Richard Evans, John Barrett, Bud Collins and Eliot Berry—the ostensible appreciation of tennis as a subject of sociological analysis was meagre.
For the introductory chapter to my edited collection, The Routledge Handbook of Tennis: History, Culture and Politics (Routledge, 2019)—compiled with the assistance of Carol Osborne from Leeds Beckett University—I gathered statistics from journals to document the advancement of tennis scholarship. From just 14 articles published in the 1990s mentioning “tennis” in the abstract (across 20 of the leading social science journals in sport), the number increased to 37 in the 2000s and 89 in the 2010s (up through the summer of 2018). This spectacular increase in scholarly material—drawing on historical, sociological, political, media/communications and/or management perspectives—illustrates a growing appreciation for tennis and its potential as a rewarding site of critical analysis. My sense is that, even with the publication of the handbook—the largest and most comprehensive collection of tennis scholarship to date, amassing 45 chapters through the collaboration of 50 authors—we are merely scratching the surface of this potential.
Several of the chapters therein are worth highlighting in this regard. Analyses of tennis superstars and celebrities from the past—including historical work on Suzanne Lenglen, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Richard “Pancho” Gonzales and Arthur Ashe—highlight just some of the case studies of socio-historical relevance, in wider examinations of class, gender, sexuality and race. Complemented by analyses of living figures—such as Billie Jean King and the “Original 9,” Renée Richards, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, Li Na, Anna Kournikova, Venus and Serena Williams and Andy Murray—critical discussions around the intersectionality of class, gender, sexuality, race and national identity abound. Thus, it has become apparent that if someone, for example, were to write a book on the physical emancipation of inter-war women through sport, the study would be deficient without discussing Lenglen—the Frenchwoman whose balletic style, courageous play, and glamorous persona made her into a global icon and an embodiment of the 1920s “New Woman”. Similarly, it would be an incomplete historical analysis to ignore Arthur Ashe’s achievements in the context of social activism around US civil rights and South African apartheid in the 1960s and 70s. The fact that his South African visa applications were rejected, personally, by that nation’s President, B.J. Vorster, makes Ashe’s repeated attempts to compete there of great significance. Similarly, would an author get away with ignoring the influence of Billie Jean King (and her colleagues within the “Original 9”) in a book about 1970s feminist advances in sport, or the achievements of the Williams sisters on debates around the intersectionality of class, race and gender in 21st century popular culture and sport? Indeed, for so many reasons, Serena Williams might well rank as one of the most culturally significant athletes, female or otherwise, of all time. To provide another example, an analysis of celebrity influences on contemporary issues of nationalism must also include Andy Murray, whose contested British/Scottish identity was mobilized repeatedly by the media since his emergence in the public eye 15 years ago, famously coming to the forefront during the recent referendum on Scottish independence. In the context of Brexit, such issues of representation demand greater attention. The above examples are of importance both within and outside of tennis, and burgeoning historical-sociological work on them brings to light the significance of tennis within discussions of socio-political movements around feminism, white privilege, neo-colonialism and national sovereignty, among several other subject areas, in both the distant and recent past.
The shifting media for communicating information about social movements and cultural phenomena have also brought new opportunities for scholarly analyses. Thus, original research to explore the place of tennis within online tennis communities, the strategic use of social media among players, and the creation and diffusion of policy discourse around mass-spectator sporting events like the Australian Open, presents fruitful avenues to explore further the sport’s contemporary position as a vehicle for societal change, identify formation and profit maximization. Further, the exploration of tennis through developments in fashion, playing styles and behavioural etiquette, and both literary and artistic depictions situates the sport as culturally noteworthy. So, as we have sharpened our critical senses of bodies as social (as well as biological) constructions, and have come to analyze how bodies are used, viewed and conceptualized, interesting if not profound insights are gained about the societal contexts in which they are situated.
Thus, it is apparent the sport of tennis has come of age as a subject of scholarship in the social sciences, and it seems opportune and well overdue to ask for “New Balls Please!” to signal the commencement of a new era in tennis scholarship. And as the sport continues to hold its own within the public arena—driven increasingly by viewership figures, sponsorship dollars and numbers of Twitter followers—it is only right that its sociological importance is recognized appropriately.
Dr. Robert J. Lake is in the Department of Sport Science at Douglas College, Canada. His research interests revolve around the sport of tennis, its history and culture, particularly in relation to issues of social class and exclusion, gender, race/ethnicity, national identity, coaching, talent development and policy. He is the author of A Social History of Tennis in Britain (Routledge, 2015), which recently won the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize awarded by the British Society of Sport History. More information, including a detailed list of publications, can be found at: http://www.douglascollege.ca/programs-courses/faculties/science-technology/sport-science/faculty/rob-lake His publications can be found, free to read/access, at: https://douglas.academia.edu/RobertJLake