The best books on the most beautiful and fascinating game of tennis

Elizabeth Wilson Author Of Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon
By Elizabeth Wilson

The Books I Picked & Why

A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played

By Marshall Jon Fisher

Book cover of A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played

Why this book?

Fisher tells a bigger story of world events and heroism through the lens of one historic tennis match: the Davis Cup final between the US and Germany played at Wimbledon in 1936 with the Swastika fluttering over the sacred green lawns. I love this inspirational and dramatic book and its hero, the German tennis star, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, the most beautiful man in Europe, an aristocrat whose tennis was exquisite. But he was more than simply a player. He lost the match. Had he won, the Nazis could not have touched him, the sporting hero, but he openly criticized the regime. He was also gay and this was the excuse for his imprisonment. Yet he survived and played a role in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944. His courage is inspiring. 

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Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art

By Ann Sumner

Book cover of Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art

Why this book?

This beautiful book is the catalogue of an art exhibition devoted to paintings and photographs that capture the world of tennis, demonstrating the close link between art and the sport. Indeed, many enthusiasts see tennis as an art in its own right and this book should convince any waverers. The gorgeous coloured and black and white illustrations range from late Victorian genre scenes of tennis as a social event including champagne, strawberries, and flirtation, on through the androgynous twenties and thirties and its development into the modern power game. Accompanying essays trace the game’s wider cultural influence. Here you will find above all the languor and elegance of social tennis and especially the centrality of women to it, from ladies playing in bustles and high heels to the Williams sisters in skin-tight miniskirts.

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Open: An Autobiography

By Andre Agassi

Book cover of Open: An Autobiography

Why this book?

The only tennis biography to be a best-seller, this frank and often racy tale of Agassi’s troubled childhood and roller coaster career is far more honest and open (aka the title) than the usual sports hagiographies. He tells all about his over-ambitious father, who made him train in a rattle snake-infested desert; about his miserable years in a tennis boot camp; about his youthful fame and the sudden responsibility of having lots of money he didn’t know how to handle; of the time his false hairpiece fell off during a match;  his doomed marriage to film star Brooke Shields; and his happy life with Steffie Graff. He even admits to dabbling in recreational drugs. There may be a few too many detailed accounts of famous matches, but this book lays it on the line about the pain and the perils as well as the intoxication of life at the top of the game.

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By Vladimir Nabokov

Book cover of Lolita

Why this book?

Once hailed as a masterpiece, today Nabokov’s novel is condemned for its subject matter, paedophilia. Some now feel it should never have been written, but I include it for two reasons. Firstly, the narrator knows his behaviour is evil and he doesn’t shrink from describing how his obsession has ruined his own life as well as Lolita’s. It is an exposure of poisoned obsession, not an endorsement, certainly not a defence of perversion and in any case, censorship of one literary fictional work wouldn’t deter paedophiles. Secondly, it is disturbing to read because it is so well written. It includes a perfect description of Lolita playing tennis and in that moment condenses all the evil and hopelessness of voyeurism. We live in a voyeuristic culture and Lolita does ask difficult questions about that.

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Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession

By William Skidelsky

Book cover of Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession

Why this book?

Finally, this is one for the fans, who are so important in sport. The blurb tells us, "For much of the past decade, William Skidelsky has not been able to stop thinking about Roger Federer, the greatest and most graceful player of all time. It’s a devotion that has been all-consuming." An obsession it certainly is and Skidellsky looks at it from all angles: his own emotional problems, the way the game of tennis has developed (not always for the better), and what Federer signifies as a sports and cultural icon. Why fans cared so passionately about Federer and more than about any other player tells us much about our culture of spectacle and consumption and our longing in a secular and cynical world for heroes to capture our imagination and to inspire.

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