Winner Takes All
It had never even occurred to me that a tennis trophy might have any of the beauty of the sport itself.
After all, good tennis depends on efficiency, lightness, grace. The gold-plated vessels—are they funeral urns, punch bowls, receptacles for your odiferous socks?—you will be handed as a tournament winner are the exact opposite of the strokes you have executed and the footwork with which you have glided as swiftly and effortlessly as Fred Astaire. These trophies are heavy, visually and physically, and they exult in the gratuitous. This, it seems, is the way it is supposed to be, no questions asked. “Celebrate athleticism with pomp; use drumrolls to congratulate the lyrical lightness of the flute.” The contradiction has become the norm.
You may say quite rightly that I am writing with the perspective of a groomsman, the guy on the sidelines looking on with a certain envy. I grew up in a house where there were shelves and shelves of trophies—large ones, mostly—almost all for golf. My parents placed my measly prizes for tennis with respect, but the little cups for victories along the lines of “runner-up for member-guest mixed doubles” were modest offerings next to the hideous hole-in-one trophies with the very same golf ball that had landed in the cup straight from the tee now held in place for all of time in an open circle within a large and flowery “1”. Maybe if I were living my fantasy as a young buck being given the gold for winning yet another grand slam title, or even as a winner of a Senior’s prize at Monte Carlo, I would only look at those overstated trophies awarded to the champions as things of total beauty.
Not so. The trophies given just about everywhere—from Roland Garros and Wimbledon to small tennis clubs in America’s loveliest summer watering holes (those resorts on the coast of Maine with a half dozen red clay courts and a small clubhouse covered in white clapboards from which the paint is slightly peeling at the end of August before the winter refurbishment that will counteract the effect of the salty sea spray brought in by ocean winds) and rustic camps deep in pine forests where a single court in old macadam is the scene of the annual competitions—are always, as if the gloppiness is requisite, over the top.
Why must this be? A well-executed serve is, after all, the essence of form refined for maximum function. The toss is launched to rise elegantly to a pinpointed target, at which point it should hover like a hummingbird for a micro-moment while the sweet spot of the racket strings makes contact to send it on the perfect trajectory to the spot in the opponent’s service box where, ideally, it can escape or at least render inutile the response. This is perfect engineering, imbued with total leanness and grace. In art, it would be Brancusi’s Bird in Space, not a Rococo altarpiece with filigree and cherubs making it impossible to rest the eye. So why are the trophies awarded for the meticulousness and Zen-like resolve requisite to winning a tennis match those hodgepodges of gold-plated handles and garlands and wreaths that these objects almost always are? Why are they not understated and gracefully proportioned to echo the purity and weightlessness that are the imperatives of good tennis?
Until a recent chance event, I never even questioned the idea that the players who fight their way through match after match and win the tournament would be given anything other than one of these garish extravaganzas.
Of course, the incongruity of their being awarded is notable to all. The players stand there, soaked in sweat, their well-trained bodies pushed to a point beyond human exhaustion, while the Duke and Duchess of Fancy-on-Costly stand there in impeccable, old-fashioned clothes. They wear the garb of the rich who would not dream of being fashionable; those blazers and flowered dresses that have not changed in half a century suggest the same effortless stature invoked in their ancestral mansions. These “nobles” embody pageantry that seems beyond challenge: the exact opposite of what it took for the winners to be victorious at match after match and finally take the finals.
Yet the presentation of those aesthetically hideous trophies, many resembling everything from Renaissance banqueting objects to ancient sarcophagi, by people who look as if they would use them to serve their turtle soup the rest of the year, seems to be an essential part of the pageantry of tennis—even if all the fluff and unnecessary expenditure of energy is the antithesis of what makes a great tennis player great.
Why is something so dependent on inner strength rewarded with something that coasts solely on the appeal of its surface? It is hard to know, but the incongruity is universal. The bigger the piece of hardware, the better. The more hideous, the more glorious. So it has always seemed.
This was until this past January. I was walking up London’s St. James’s Street, in the heart of Mayfair. The windy winter rain was perpetually changing its mind about whether to push me from behind or try to halt me by pushing full force into my face. Turning to the side for shelter, I was caught by a window of objects by Peter Carl Fabergé.
The Russian court designer has always been one of my favorite craftspeople of all time. The capacity to be luxuriant and supremely tasteful at the time, and to execute small bejeweled objects, not just with phenomenal technical skill but also with unprecedented imagination, is rare. Fabergé’s skills and fantasies were such that he not only served the goals of the Romanovs and their court, but he made it its irresistible style. The last czars and czarinas lived in a world of material plenitude that was above all tasteful, exquisite, and never vulgar. The serving trays and Easter eggs and sword handles that Fabergé and his workshop provided for their daily existence embody genuine skill and visual flare. They are not ostentatious. Rather, they are often breathtakingly beautiful.
I studied the enameled picture frames with their tiny bows composed of emeralds and diamonds and the delicate small boxes with their glistening lustrous surfaces that Fabergé’s shop made with unique aplomb. Then I suddenly stopped short. Was it possible? A Fabergé tennis trophy?
The fantasy object was more than one could dare hope for. It is, essentially, a cut-glass vase, rhomboid in form: lithe, visually light, impeccable in execution, and exceedingly graceful. Its simple silver mount bears the inscription that explains its purpose: ‘A Prize,’ ‘Mixed Doubles,’ ‘St Petersburg, 1912.’
What more can we know? Its excellent purveyors make no claim of additional information: the precise match for which this was the trophy, who the woman and man were who took it home, whether it was for a day-long event at a small private club or family court, or for an international tournament. But they provide some vital facts:
An All Russian Lawn Tennis Championship as well as the first Russian Open Championship, hosting players from Europe and the USA took place in St Petersburg in 1912. The same year also saw Russia’s first participation in tennis at the Olympics, which were held in Stockholm.
And then they invite a wonderful fantasy: It may also be possible that the trophy was awarded as part of a private tournament, played among visitors at a palace or house.
And so my mind took off. What was the occasion of this extraordinary tennis trophy being awarded?
It was a glorious idea. A private tournament, nice friends only, on that grass court with a garden alongside it. What would people drink while watching? Tea from delicate porcelain cups? Champagne in Fabergé silver goblets? More importantly, how would they play? What would they wear? What would their banter be?
Photographs taken from those halcyon days in St. Petersburg before anyone even had a slight whiff of the revolution that would end it all show that, for mixed doubles, the women tended to wear frilly, white, long-sleeved blouses. Their black skirts were so long that you could not see their footwear. The men were all in white long-sleeved shirts buttoned high, and baggy white trousers, with cummerbund-like sashes across their middles.
Dressed as such, they took their sport seriously. In her diaries from June of 1913, Grand Duchess Olga, the oldest daughter of Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, writes, “In the afternoon [we] rode in motors to play tennis. I played four sets with Zelenetzky against Anya and Kira N., also played one set with him against Kira and Arseniev, [we] won all five sets.” Olga was plenty competitive for a member of a family not known for its drive to accomplish a lot. On another summer afternoon, she and Aunt Olga played “against A and Baron von Noalde and lost miserably.”
But the good old Baron was nothing but fun, it seems. After the match, he taught Olga to walk on stilts and had her doing giant steps in no time. Meanwhile, the tennis court was not empty: “Papa played with Anya, Khvoskinsky, and Rodionov.” Papa, of course, was the Czar. But he had none of the autocratic grandeur the name implies. Peter in his photos is lean, smiling with his white moustache, always affable-looking: John Newcombe as the doyen of The Winter Palace. Olga seems to have had nothing but good times with her devoted dad. “Played tennis with Papa against Pavl. Al. and Poups (Potovsky). We won one set, they won two. Everyone went swimming, but we returned to the yacht.”
Life was not easy for the royal family, however. In 1904, Czarina Alexandra had given birth to Alexei Nikolaevitch, who, as the first son following the births of his four older sisters, was to inherit the throne. Almost from the start, he was discovered to suffer from haemophilia. The genetic disease inherited from the side of the czarina not only made him always at risk, but also often put him in poor health. Maybe the czar and Poups Potovsky—have you ever heard a better name?—had fun rallying across the net and going for a dip in the Baltic before relaxing on the yacht, but even before they knew that the Bolsheviks would end their idyll, they led lives of horrendous personal struggle.
Still, tennis provided the czar and his family some of what it gives to many of us: a reprieve from life’s difficulties. Perhaps the Fabergé was the icing on the cake after a nice day of playful competition among the ever fascinating Romanovs.
Yet I have another idea of where the Fabergé could have been given to a couple of happy tennis victors.
In 1907, when he was eight years old, Vladimir Nabokov had started to take tennis lessons in St. Petersburg. His coach was also the coach of the French national champion.
Maybe this was the court where a Fabergé crystal vase was the trophy: the place where the future writer of Lolita worked on his groundstrokes and acquired the skill to get back in the right position swiftly.
Better yet, maybe it was the imaginary court at which Nabokov sets his breath-taking La Veneziana:
“In front of the red-hued castle, and luxuriant elms, there was a vividly green grass court. Early that morning the gardener had smoothed it with a stone roller, extirpated a couple of daisies, redrawn the lines on the lawn with liquid chalk, and tightly strung a resilient new net between the posts. From a nearby village the butler had brought a carton within which reposed a dozen balls, each wrapped like a precious fruit in its own sheet of transparent paper.”
Yes! This is where the Fabergé trophy is to be presented. Its luminous crystal will receive and enhance the red of the castle and the green of the trees and the grass. Fabergé made a sort of prism; the yellow of the flowers will also appear in it, like tiny stars.
Who will receive the trophy? Let it be young Nabokov himself, please. Or else let it be Frank, the hero of the 1920 story that Nabokov set in the grounds of the red castle with its superb tennis lawn.
Consider his style as a player: “Frank, who was serving, tossed the ball high with his left hand, leaned far back as if he were about to fall over, then immediately lunged forward with a broad arching motion, his glossy racket giving a glancing blow to the ball, which shot across the net and bounced like white lightning at Simpson, who gave it a helpless sidewise look.”
Perfect! The Fabergé trophy belongs in the hands of the master of that perfect ace. It has the tautness and stretch with which this fine player leans back. It has the gloss of the racket that strikes across the ball with such zip. Light within the vase also bounces “like white lightning.”
At last. The trophy, and the game for which it is a reward, are the same. Let Fabergé and Nabokov call the shots, and, yet again, tennis shows itself to be the essence of art, and a source of pleasures, with the game and its reward in sync, never before imagined.
Article publié dans COURTS n° 7, printemps 2020.