A Radical History of Tennis?
When historians speak of “the people,” I cringe. Do they mean the industrial working classes? Do they mean historically disadvantaged groups in a broader sense? Do they mean the kind of checklist diversity one sees in contemporary advertising? Or do they actually mean everyone? I never know what to think.
Regardless of what David Berry intended people to mean in the title of A People’s History of Tennis, I was excited to read the book. I am an avid reader of the history of tennis and have long had a scholarly interest in labor history. I held out hope that this book was less Howard Zinn and more Roy Rosenzweig, whose Eight Hours for What We Will (1985) was a serious study of working-class recreation and workers’ efforts to assert autonomy from corporate paternalism in their free time. A number of other fantastic culturally oriented studies followed in Rosenzweig’s footsteps, including Kathy Peiss’ Cheap Amusements (1986), Robin D.G. Kelley’s Race Rebels (1996), and Jackson Lears’ Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2004). Unfortunately, A People’s History of Tennis has a few more helpings of Zinn’s lefist dualism than it does Rosenzweig’s celebration of laborers who built a life of their own choosing outside of their daily work.
This is, to be clear, an interesting book. Berry catalogs some of the sport’s most idiosyncratic figures, both well-known and forgotten, from both the recent and the distant past. He makes a strong case that tennis has a history beyond the pomp and privilege with which it is often associated. Berry’s history of the game is filled with figures who worked cracks into the game’s aristocratic foundations, opening the sport up to men and women of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and sexual orientations.
Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, the delightful crank who helped popularize lawn tennis in the 1870s, exemplifies the interesting characters who populate Berry’s book. Wingfield promoted tennis as a civil and healthful game of skill for both sexes rather than as a Darwinian contest of brawn, helping establish tennis’ appeal and social acceptability for both men and women. Other noteworthy gadflies in the book include the early tennis champion Lottie Dod, who argued succ
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