Serge Daney's "Tennis' Telegenic Advantage"

Tennis and cinema meet in this delightful essay by Daney featured in a new collection of English translations of the critic's writing.
Serge Daney

From Serge Daney's The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981, translated by Christine Pichini and published by MIT Press.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (2018).

The reasons behind tennis’s sudden rise, as sport or as spectacle, are various. Television actively participates in it; tennis is in fact one of the sports that translates best to the small screen.

Saturday, July 14. While watching the Davis Cup’s lackluster doubles semi-final with Noah/Moretton against the Czech duo Kodeš/Smid, I couldn’t help thinking that at least tennis has an advantage when seen on television. It is, as they say, the sport that “loses” the least and “gains” the most. For someone who loves both tennis and moving images (and even more for someone who enjoys watching movement within images), there are great moments to be had on the small screen. Great moments for everyone: Borg falling to his knees after beating Tanner in five sets at Wimbledon, Pecci crouching, breaking into a run while slowly raising his arms after match point against Connors at Roland-Garros, or even (but this match may not have been televised; it too was at Roland-Garros, against the Australian Cash, and Jacques Tati narrated it, or better yet: mimed it) Connors accompanying a lucky shot with a friendly gesture towards the net, as if to say, “you are my friend!” It’s with gestures like that one that Connors won over the crowd at Roland-Garros. But there are also an infinite number of subtle movements, down-time, minuscule events, without significance, or on the contrary, packed with meaning (we’ll never know), of tiny moments, perhaps for only one television viewer (but that isn’t important) that the camera, strict but fair, captures at the moment they appear and that offer themselves, if one wishes, to be read. If we were to take every sport on television one by one, we would soon see that many of them translate badly or not at all. Impossible to reproduce what goes on within the peloton at the Tour de France: we are forced to obsess over the final kilometers and the finish line.

Several factors play a role in tennis’s telegenic advantage. First of all, everything that happens on the court is immediately visible by everyone: as in a bullfight, the time of seeing, the time of understanding, the time of judging, the time of reacting, are nearly conflated. We see, at the moment it occurs, one match happen or come undone, a strategy succeed or fail, a body slacken, reflexes wane, tics invade, an intention impose itself. The “replay” is not what it is at the track, there to make manifest something that couldn’t be properly seen, but to allow us to aesthetically re-enjoy something that was perfectly seen once again.

Next, it’s tennis, more than many other sports, that produces the clearest, most legible emblematic image of modern sport: a violent telescoping (that derails all discourse, somewhat) of money, the body, and power. There are billions of dollars at stake on the court (sponsors on the players’ jerseys, the BnP ball-boys and girls), but there is also the exhibition and testing of trained bodies, making propaganda out of their training (moralizing training: the greatest player in the world, Borg, doesn’t party, he is “serious”).

Finally, there is a third reason, that refers more to the medium’s aesthetic: that ideally, it would be possible to make the limits of the court and the borders of the frame coincide: ultimately, out balls would be “out of frame.” Cinephiles find this to be food for fantasy, at least that variety of cinephiles, still common, whose cinematic pleasure depends on the back-and-forth between what’s in and out of frame.

All of these reasons perhaps explain why tennis appears more and more to be one of the richest spectacles that can be seen today. With one restriction: tennis is still very “white.” One day it must be asked to what extent tennis is an essentially “white” game and the extent to which it will no longer be. For now, it suffices to say that, although (or because?) it remains so white, tennis has recently become more savage. The manners of the tour are changing. The monsters are finished with gentlemanly tennis, with the contemptuous elegance of those who have “class for others.” Of course, we enjoy watching Ashe, Smith, and Panatta, but it is clear that Connors’s two-handed backhand is another story. We are at a pivotal moment in tennis: it is reinventing itself before our very eyes.

And so, we must go back to the beginning: if tennis translates best to the small screen, how can the small screen best render these changes in the game? Vicious circle. Everyone is beginning to realize that one effect of the media is to modify what it broadcasts in return. In this way, the increasing coverage of tennis on television risks changing the game itself. And always in the direction of what is most spectacular. Television, inevitably, necessarily warps things. For example, when the cameras are always positioned on the bleacher sat the back of the court we certainly get a good picture of the match’s tactical play, but we lose everything concerning how the ball is struck, the violence of the physical engagement and even the effects of the ball’s trajectory. Seen from above, looking down, tennis satisfies the referee in us, but to the detriment of something else. Borg’s game seems dull and facile because, from that angle, the lift he gives his shots goes almost unnoticed. In order to capture another truth, one would have, at times, to do as the BBC sometimes does: film at the player’s level, but behind him, at an angle, and pan, in slow motion, to discover another tennis, not impeccable geometry seen from above, but a curved, rigged space seen from below, where air is at a premium. This is only one of many points. One day we must (and not only in tennis) imagine new and newer ways of placing the camera (and the microphone) and of accompanying the body in its images.

(Libération, 16 July 1979)

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