We all know that Wimbledon requires the players to wear white and that the audience sips champagne, eats strawberries and cream, and rubs shoulders with royalty. But we also know that tennis gave us Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and John “You Cannot Be Serious” McEnroe.
Tennis, perhaps more than any other sport, struggles with its social identity. Its history came from the 12th Century Cloisters in France where it was called “Jeu de Paume.” The game was adopted by European royalty and finally converted into lawn tennis by Great Britain, where it remained connected with an upper class lifestyle.
The birth of tennis in America was on Staten Island, N.Y. in 1872 and it spread throughout the nation. In America, tennis remained somewhat staid and upper class and as recently as the 1970’s, we still had Arthur Ashe with his fine manners playing with ultimate sportsmanship and courtesy at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. But then came Connors and McEnroe, and it all seemed to change gears.
Tennis, almost overnight, became loud, vulgar, profane, aggressive and rude. This continued with “image is everything” Andre Agassi, and the in your face toughness of the Williams Sisters. There can be no doubt that these superstars energized and popularized the game of tennis, but one can ask the question at what cost.
As a psychoanalyst, I am often asked to discuss the underlying or embedded meaning of a variety of environments or behaviors. And the most interesting of questions is “How does a particular sport and its history influence those who play the game?” This is referred to as “The Zimbardo Effect” based upon The Stanford Prison Experiment, which found that when you put subjects into a jail setting, they will begin to act like they belong there. The film in 2010, “The Experiment,” with Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody, was about an experiment where participants assumed the identities of inmates and prison guards in an empty jail, with the promise of a $1,000-a-day reward. Before long, the prisoners find themselves at the mercy of their keepers, and all the test subjects discover how easily violence and cruelty can manifest itself in human behavior. The impact of one’s environment is so strong that the world was sure that Donald Trump would begin to act presidential when he entered the Oval Office. This only shows us that the exception does prove the rule.
The fact that an environment impacts the people within that environment means that a particular sport will unconsciously impact the player who participates. The upper classes in Europe and America have always chosen to play tennis, golf, polo and sailing for a variety of reasons. They have the discretionary income, the time, they enjoy these sports and they also understand how social capitol works, where power is found and is a major way how social networking functions. The upper classes have always shied away from the more violent sports like boxing, wrestling, football, and even tend to ignore team sports like basketball and baseball.
Up until the arrival of Jimmy Connors, almost all tennis players exercised self-control, good manners and behavioral restraint in all their reactions. These values are part of upper class etiquette and not a trivial thing to learn. All parents harbor the hope that their children will be upwardly mobile and that certain sports, though they may be expensive, will also be of great benefit to their child. This is one reason the smart parent encourages young ones to engage in certain sports. Some call this elitist, but yet everyone wants to be a part that that group.
Years ago, I was invited to play golf at Pine Valley Golf Club, considered to be one of the finest and most exclusive golf clubs. The most notable thing I witnessed there, outside of all the private planes and the famous athletes walking around, was how older, very wealthy looking, white-haired members would be walking about or eating in the dining room, followed by younger men who had the distinct look of CEO’s in training. Private golf and private tennis clubs are training grounds for the upper classes where young ones are learning things like how to dress, how to act and how to sound.
One can naively assume that tennis functions in a vacuum and is only about groundstrokes and trophies, but the reality is that tennis is only one of a handful of sports that is a breeding ground for the upper class in America. This is why so many parents are willing to invest in all of those lessons and club fees for their kids. And it’s also why one of the most important functions of the professional tennis player is to represent their sport with dignity, refinement and class.