The Smash of Rage
By Serge Daney
Where television, watching tennis, has ended up whispering to the players the art of overacting the violence that they may not feel.
Everybody remembers the moment where tennis lost its manners and no one ignores that television was partly responsible. What was banned from the courts returned via the small screen and slowly became a part of the total show that tennis had become. In the early eighties, Borg's indifference to what wasn't his tennis, Connors' grunts and MacEnroe's trotting flip drew the new face of the top-level tennis player. A champion maybe, but never again a gentleman. Because it was total, the show of the great tournaments included what it was no longer possible to hide: that tennis is not the opposite of violence, except that this violence is often directed more towards oneself than towards the Other.
Since then, the evolution of tennis and the evolution of television have hobbled along, from injuries to cohabitation, from new ATP rules to programming grids, from big money to big money. And the top players of world tennis have had all the time needed to live with the idea that they were filmed and if, at first, they might have dreamt an image of friendly and elegant players, they eventually understood that this image which was stolen from them with impunity during matches, they could use it themselves to improve their game or study their opponent's.
Elegance has therefore disappeared as the TV spectator's eye expected something else from tennis. The diabolical Connors and the amazing MacEnroe became loved for their bad manners, because these manners were more interesting than the starchy class of the last stylists (from Clerc to Gomez). All this, a very human phenomenon by the way, deepened the scenography of tennis with a new dimension: that of the close up after the rally, of the disarticulated replay, of the stroboscopic ordinariness of the slow motion, of the microphone at court level. The number of events per second inflated with all the affects, tics, drives and silent rages that a body is capable of.
Since it was no longer a question to suppress the aggressiveness in tennis, and since it was no longer enough to simply observe it on the image, it was about defining the vocabulary of its gestures, a visual vocabulary. Where Connors was naturally mixing bad temper and humour, and where MacEnroe effortlessly combined madness and lucidity, the young ones of the eighties who, despite their gifts, did not all have the famous killer instinct, felt "obliged" to manufacture gestures that everybody could see, inelegant but "human" gestures, where one could read their sadness of never being enough of a killer. This is the moment when the incest happened between television and tennis.
Yesterday, the final at Flushing Meadow was moving, "finally" moving. Not so much because of the players or the beauty of the game (the semi-final between Wilander and Edberg had offered a more beautiful, a more complete tennis) than because of this "duty of aggressiveness" which took over the finalists. The code of this aggressiveness is now known: closed fists, bended necks, curved bodies and evil gazes. As if it was necessary to maintain oneself as long as possible in a state of hate, without assigning any particular object to that hate. For this frenetic body language is not directed at the opponent, but at one's self-image, at the image the public is creating and the image the cameras are coldly recording. Image, in last analysis, goes to the image.
The recent history of tennis is the acquisition of these few gestures and of this choreography of aggressiveness - neither "contained" (Connors) nor "played out" (MacEnroe") but "on the skin". For a long time, Lendl forgot to win decisive matches because, too proud, he didn't want to appear relieved to have saved a point or happy to have totally defeated the other. He was so stiff, unable to bend, that he had to learn, while becoming the best, to express the fear of losing, even and "especially" after a winning shot. He had to learn to exorcise. His body took longer to bend, to invent this neck movement resembling a disappointed vulture, than the camera took to record this burlesque gesturing. The tennisman also had to become an actor and play motivation to be sure not to lose it. In that sense, Lendl comes from the Actors Studio.
Some say that Lendl likes no-one and that no-one likes Lendl. We could add that nothing is sadder (and "finally" moving) than the face of this man whose only remaining option is to be the man to beat, until he is beaten. But who would have said, a few years ago, that Wilander, the subtle Wilander, the seventeen year old who won Rollang Garros laughing, would be also forced to play aggressiveness? It's nevertheless what he does since his marriage, thus becoming an interesting player and a man (twenty-two years old) capable, him too, to stylise the emotions he's going through. And Wilander invents a strange movement, the two fists tightly closed and parallel, his back swayed, as if each point was a match point, as if each ball was the deciding one. This metamorphosis isn’t elegant; it’s probably the condition for Wilander to – already! – start a second career.
And the simplistic myth of the Swedish impassiveness starts to crack. One of the most inspired players on a court is maybe Stefan Edberg. Arrived at the top of the rankings, he is facing Lendl the ogre, and is forced to join in. Natural gifts are no longer enough, the theatre of aggressiveness is required. And here's the tall, placid boy (who's also a tad lethargic as everyone says) starting to close his fists, to express an indecisive "take that!" or a puerile "serves you right!" which shows as much the joy of having done well as the idea that the other is "right" as well.
Acting aggressiveness allows aggression and grants a chance to win. What television has given to tennis (a magnifying glass lens), tennis returns to television. What it has taken from tennis (elegance, seduction, serenity), it doesn't take for itself. In the small wars of French television, there's a style of bragging and boastfulness which is not far from the courts. No need to seduce to carry the day. But in the end, the day is no longer attractive.
Originally published in Libération, 16 September 1987, and reprinted in Le salaire du zappeur, POL, 1993, pp. 18-21. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar
Godard: Nowadays you see the champions raising their fists, showing their teeth as soon as they win (Godard imitates what he means). It's awful. Even women are getting into the act now.
--The frenzy of winning...
Godard: Poor Pasteur.* Excitement, sure, but the frenzy of winning -- that's for (General Jacques) Massu in Algeria, that's for war. It's a far cry from sports.
*In the original Godard plays off the interviewer's initial remark, "La rage de la victoire..." (the frenzy, madness, "rage" of the victory). "Rage" also means rabies in French; hence Godard's reference to Louis Pasteur.
------from Jérome Bureau and Benoît Heimermann interview with Godard, early May 2001. First published in L'Équipe , 9 May 2001. Reprinted and translated in Future(s) of Film; 3 Interviews, John O'Toole, Verlag Gachnang & Springer AG Publisher.
------film clip: THE BIG MOUTH (1967, Jerry Lewis)