As I’m getting things off my chest I’d like also to, as of now, call for an immediate and unconditional cessation in the use of the words “art” and “beauty” in relation to Fed’s game.
Repeat offenders will have their noses sawn off, be sewn in leather with a wild animal and thrown off Waterloo Bridge.
Words like “poetry” and “grace” are off limits too – as is “brute force” in relation to Nadal.
The reason is simple: It’s boring. It’s not 2005 anymore. Aaaand…I think we get it.
Not only are such “Beauty & the Beast” caricatures hackneyed and hopelessly outdated – they’re also, now, one thinks, deliberately neglectful of the facts on the ground.
For one thing, the terms of reference have moved on: Fed no longer coasts through matches as freely and artfully as he once used to.
He’s been forced to refashion his tennis offering into something altogether more pragmatic and (dare I say it) more workmanlike (would an 06/07 Fed have required 55 aces to put away Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon 2009 final?)
We can have a debate about whether that’s down to him losing a little edge or others catching up – what we can’t do is to put our heads in the sand and pretend he’s still playing tennis with the faeries.
And Rafa will never strike a ball as silkily as Fed does, but has also evolved into something more complete, certainly, but also more compelling.
I’ve never liked the art references – especially as attention to aesthetics so often gets in the way of winning. But if it must be art, then it occurs to me that we should, at least, recognise that tennis offers us more than just one (classically-skewed) vision of it.
Just as it would be wrong to discuss all art in terms of Renaissance Classicism, or indeed all Modern Art in terms of Cubism, it’s a little naive (not to mention Fascist) to suggest that Federer’s tennis (pretty as it is) presents us with the only acceptable vision of aestheticism within the sport.
Ideas about art have always been hotly debated, shaped as they are by the prevailing societal mood and specific cultural mores, as well as ever-evolving notions of “good taste”.
1) Why should it be any different in tennis?
Serve-volley – or more specifically, a sepia-tinted print capturing the likes of Fred Perry serve-volleying in cricket flannels weaving a wooden racquet in full flight at the net -- is now firmly established as the tennis equivalent of the ceiling of the Sistine-Chapel.
God help any hapless soul that dares to challenge this orthodoxy.
I don’t claim to know which unelected council of elders agreed upon that, but for better or worse, here we are.
Nothing wrong with that, of course….provided we’re prepared to accept that just as much if not more captivating stuff is possible from the baseline – Fed himself only regularly serve-volleyed in his first Slam victory back in Wimby 2003 – the stuff people like to regularly cite as “art” and “magic” came mostly from the back of the court during 2006-2007.
It fell out of favour altogether at the end of the 90s when people (rightly) questioned just how much of a spectacle watching two guys with booming serves further shortening already constricted points by finishing up at the net can really be.
And I might be wrong about this, but I don’t remember people raving about women’s net-play during this period very much either (though perhaps given the way women’s tennis has subsequently gone, they are right to lament it’s loss).
2) There’s also individual differences in taste.
I happen to think Guillermo Coria’s brand of clay court tennis was pure sex. That if you can bring yourself to conceive of an aesthetic dimension to all that “ill-mannered” sliding and “blue-collar” grind that goes on on a clay court, that Coria somehow represented the discipline at it’s zenith.
As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to try very hard to detect a type of poetry in the way he would slide into balls, in his speed around the court, in his delicately caressed drop shots, and even in the way he wasn’t in a rush to end the point in all those physically taxing loopy exchanges.
Poetry that was only possible because it wasn’t, at that time, in vogue to aggressively finish off clay court points with flat winners ripped through the court the way Robin and others do today – a poetry that only came into being because it was consciously defined against, and allowed to evolve independently of, that later (more aggressive)trend in a way which wouldn’t be possible today….but an art form all the same.
It’s not a fashionable opinion of course. Clay court tennis and words like “art” or “beauty” aren’t supposed to belong in the same sentence.
The reason of course, and here’s where I do happen to agree there are parallels in art and tennis, is that tennis has it’s very own pretentious “chattering classes” - and their pernicious elitism is sometimes almost as pervasive as it is in the world of art, literature and the theatre too – they like to pretend it doesn’t exist, it does.
“We don’t consort with those sorts of people” – (clay court people) - “not when we’re engaged in highbrow discourse on fashion and beauty at any rate”.
For this pompous “set”, clay court tennis, will forever be defined by the roguish and uncultured cornerstones of physicality, grind and brute force.
And thus, like some embarrassing secret, it is to be, if not entirely banished, hemmed in far and away from our sensibilities into some forgotten corner of the tennis calendar – let them have their two months of fun, but don’t ever let them presume to aspire above their station - what can they possibly have to offer art?
I doubt that opinion was ever true even when we had such a clear distinction between clay court and glass court tennis as we did in the 80s and 90s. With the advent of the all-court tennis we see from Novak, Federer, Muzz and yes, even Nadal, it’s become completely indefensible, though not, sadly, obsolete.
3) And all that is before you’ve even gotten to the age old question of what actually constitutes good art, or whether something is art at all.
I’m not going to deny that I, myself, prefer Fed’s game over Rafa’s – but that is a matter of taste and taste alone. When did individual taste ever preclude something from being considered art, or even good art?
Most would agree that the purpose of art, is to challenge, inspire and excite our sensibilities – to fill them with an overwhelming sense of wonder, awe and (some would say) spiritual exhilaration.
You can’t, in all honesty, objectively argue that Rafa’s play doesn’t do any, or all of those things – although you’ll probably have to discard some of those preconceived (neoclassical-Federist) notions of beauty you might have, in order to appreciate that.
But that should be ok, no?
No one in their right mind disputes that the roof of the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa are both one of the greatest works of art we have, but would anyone presume to suggest that Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” is not art? Or is somehow less worthy of the label?
Just as pretending Fed’s stroke production isn’t both visually astounding and unprecedented, it would be utter folly to play down the role and significance of the Italian Renaissance in the history and evolution of art.
But it would be absurder still to posit that that represents the only admissible vision of art – or worse, that ‘Abstract Expressionism’ (or indeed any modern art movement) is not a valid art form and can have nothing to offer in any serious discourse.
Just remember that, that is exactly what you do when you dismiss Rafa as a “brute”, a “monstrosity” or a “freak”.
Or better still, let’s shaddap about “art” altogether.