the gentlewoman

Reader of the Month

Elizabeth Wilson is a mad keen tennis fan, so much so, she wrote a book about it. Love Game chronicles the history of the world’s chicest sport from Victorian pastime to global phenomenon. This, of course, isn’t Elizabeth’s first publication. Scholarly fashion fans will surely recognise her as the revered author of Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity and readers of crime fiction fête her for her series of post-World War II suspense thrillers. As the tennis cavalcade moves on and prepares for the US Open next month, The Gentlewoman’s Richard O’Mahony sat down with Elizabeth for a post-Wimbledon analysis.

Elizabeth Wilson

Richard: What’s the appeal of Wimbledon?

Elizabeth: Well, firstly for players, Wimbledon is the one to win so the tennis is always superb. There’s also a sort of garden party atmosphere there. It’s not like going to the Emirates stadium, where, basically, you go to there, watch the Arsenal match and then go home again. Wimbledon you go and make a jolly day of it.

R: Wimbledon certainly feels very British.

E: Not even British, it’s English. It’s a pastiche of what England used to be like or what some believe England should be like. It’s all very Middle England. The All-England Club has been very clever at marketing it as so, deliberately promoting the whole Pimms, strawberries and white clothing thing. It’s a nostalgia-fest in a way, despite the tennis itself having changed considerably.  It’s a faster game now than say, for example, when Arthur Ash, the only black man to win Wimbledon, played in the 1970s. It was light and airy then and not as brutal.

R: It’s fascinating to see those two aspects at play: the pomp of Wimbledon and then the unorthodoxy of players like Dustin Brown.

E: Who blows all that tradition out of the water! Each year there’s a player that comes along as a reminder that things have changed and are changing.

R: What was your favourite moment from this year’s tournament?

E: The best moments are when you’re emotionally engaged with who wants to win – you really want them to win. It was great moment when Dustin Brown beat Nadal.

R: Did you see David Beckham catch that fly ball?

E: I did! Tennis has always been a celebrity game. If you go back the 1920s, a player like Suzanne Lenglen was absolutely a celebrity in her own right. It’s a US import – the current: “Oh, let’s look at a celebrity in the crowd” phenomena, which, in a funny way, is now becoming part of the Wimbledon tradition along with former tennis stars returning to watch the tournament. All these new traditions get mixed in with the old traditions.

R: Why do you think middle-aged women go so mad for it?

E: I think it might be a bit like reliving their youth because tennis used to be such a part of girls’ growing up, and still is to an extent. It’s got a social side, mixed with romance, and a certain pleasure in the summer sun. So, psychologically, there’s this idyllic picture of what tennis means. In the book I write about how players such as Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova were icons for women in the 1970s and they had a tremendous impact on feminism – for young women then these players were hugely influential.

R: Do you play yourself?

E: Not any more, I gave it up when I left university. I first started playing because my stepmother was a Wimbledon player and so my father enrolled me in the Queen’s Club as a junior. I loved going there. I think he hoped it would make my stepmother and I get along better, but it didn’t.

R: Tennis is one of the few sports where women aren’t the sideshow.

E: You would think that in golf men and women would compete against each other, but somehow they don't? What this level playing field between the sexes did in tennis was cast a suspicion over the sport, that it’s not very macho. That’s one of the most interesting stories of modern tennis: the drive to make tennis more macho and shake off its effete associations.

R: That’s interesting when you consider the machismo of players like Nadal or the physical transformations of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

E: The drive began after World War II: American men were allowed to continue playing tennis during the War, whereas Europeans couldn’t. After the War ended, the Americans were more dominant in the sport and the great player of the time Jack Kramer promoted, as he called it, a “power game”. There was much more emphasis on strength and big hitting. I think the Americans were particularly paranoid.

R: Who’s your favourite player?

E: Federer. Originally, I was going to write a book more about fandom and, in part, about being a fan of Roger Federer. Federer fans can be quite obsessive. They leave all sorts of weird comments on his website and make videos of his matches set to classical music – you’ll find them on Youtube. For me, it’s the aesthetic dimension of his game. I just think it’s more creative than the other players. Djokovic’s is a bit soulless.

R: I know my girlfriends and I obsess about Nadal’s arms more than is probably healthy.

E: There’s something about tennis that gets beyond the contest. It’s partly because you’re focused entirely on the player’s movements. With all the close-ups and replays you’re obsessing on the players’ bodies for hours on end. Footballers aren’t fetishised to quite the same extent because they’re running around and you don’t see them in close-up. I can’t think of any other sport where you do so much as in tennis.

R: Do you have any tips on getting tickets for Wimbledon next year?

E: My new best friend has access actually! But I couldn’t divulge that information.

Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Wilson. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!