Review of Tennis: A Cultural History

Gillmeister, Heiner. Tennis: A Cultural History. 2nd Edition. Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2017. Pp. xvi+599. Notes, bibliography, illustrated sources, index. $45 paperback.

Reviewed by Robert J. Lake

In 1997, when Heiner Gillmeister brought out his first edition of Tennis: A Cultural History, there was very little else on the market in terms of tennis history texts. Not surprisingly, it was well received and not only for its novelty; it was also extensively well researched and supported with primary data, and it was comprehensive, covering the sport’s earliest (ancient) origins right up to the beginning of the 20th century. The first edition was also really nicely illustrated with dozens of pictures and images depicting early tennis courts. Arguably, the text needed some stronger contextualization in places, better support from secondary sources to both acknowledge and utilize the growing body of sport history literature, and to consolidate some of its content so that it was an easier-to-follow and more readable and manageable text.


Equinox, 2017

Coming twenty years after the first, therefore, the second edition represented for Gillmeister an excellent opportunity to improve an already good book, by utilizing material from the burgeoning body of sport/tennis history, particularly the work of academic sport historians in the last decade, and to provide stronger contextualization and a more coherent and concise read. It was thus disappointing that Gillmeister failed to do any of these things, such that the second edition is very much like the first, only longer, denser, and now a bit behind the times.

Five of the books’ nine chapters (1, 3, 4, 6 & 7) are essentially “copied and pasted,” with at most an extra paragraph or two in each and/or some extra information in the endnotes, but without a significant edit of arguably superfluous filler or reference to most of the new literature that has been published of late, except the author’s own work. Gillmeister could have been forgiven for excluding insights from Roger Morgan’s (1995) exquisite Tennis: The Development of the European Ball Game in his first edition, as the book would have been out only a short time, but its sustained absence in the 2017 text is inexcusable, as is the failure to cite John Shneerson’s (2015) masterful Real Tennis: Today and Yesterday. Both offer much to the analysis of early ball games (both ancient and medieval), which are covered in the first two chapters. Gillmeister still contends, for example, that medieval cloisters represent the chief location where tennis was first played, but the compelling evidence presented by both Morgan and Shneerson to counter this view – they posit that early shop fronts and other secular locations provide more plausible sites – is cast aside. For sure, many of Gillmeister’s insights into early tennis court design, rules, and equipment were supported with primary data, but to tenaciously cling to his old beliefs while ignoring opposing viewpoints is indicative of Gillmeister’s not infrequent tendency to casually stretch the available evidence to suit his arguments. Also, the third and fourth chapters, dealing with the language of tennis and tennis in renaissance literature, would have benefitted immensely from utilizing The Bandies of Fortune: Perceptions of Real Tennis from Medieval to Modern Times by Geoff Hiller (2009), but this was also overlooked. It should be added that these other books are not obscure texts, but are widely available and published by the leading international publisher on real tennis.

Chapter 5 is a bridge between the first and second sections, dealing with tennis in Germany from the 16th-18th centuries. This has been noticeably enhanced with added detail on specific courts and clubs in some of the main German cities during this period. For those historians of specifically German tennis, these additions would be particularly welcome, but perhaps for others the added detail, much of which is un-contextualized and merely descriptive, simply adds to the weight of the book, figuratively and literally. At times, in this as in other chapters, there is little flow between sub-sections, and the overall story is oftentimes lost under the mass of added detail and the desire, seemingly, to bombard and impress the reader with information.

Chapters 6 through 9 deal with the emergence and early development of lawn tennis in Britain, the US, France, and Germany respectively. The first two of these are more or less identical to the first edition, but, again, do not add references to and insights from the considerable body of literature that has emerged, particularly on British tennis, in the last few years. Articles on developing tennis styles and strokes, playing etiquette, early gender relations, amateurism, and coaching have appeared in Sport in History and the International Journal of the History of Sport, but are entirely ignored in Gillmeister’s discussions in these areas. Nevertheless, Gillmeister’s work to unpack the query of who invented lawn tennis was commendable, as was his analysis of how the sport’s rules and court design became standardized in the 1880s. I also liked the discussion of the early Davis Cup contests and the analysis of the “Dauntless Three,” a poem written about the ultimately outplayed British trio during the inaugural match. The chapter on French tennis (8) benefitted from an added section, a useful critical discussion of the supposed role of the Renshaw brothers in building courts at the Beau Site in Cannes. The final chapter on German tennis saw enhancements across a number of areas, but turned the already unreasonably long chapter into an even longer one: 85 pages, with a whopping 559 endnotes.

The result of all this was to create an impressively detailed but at times unwieldy text, which overall has unfortunately retrograded somewhat since the first edition, when at least its flaws were compensated by its novelty, comprehensive depth and utilization of exciting new primary data. Gillmeister also missed an excellent opportunity to better structure the book by adding an introduction and conclusion, to tie the main strands of his arguments together, and also to bring his work further into the 20th and/or 21st centuries. At times, he made efforts to connect recent events in tennis – e.g. Andy Murray’s 2012 Olympic victory – to 19th century themes, but these seemed to be forced in and out of place, jumping as it did over one hundred years of history. Gillmeister would have been better off either filling this historical gap or leaving these token contemporary connections out altogether.

Given there has been so much written in the field of tennis history since 1997 – and Gillmeister must of course be credited with providing this initial kick-start – it is worth questioning whether it is worth purchasing this second edition if you already own the first. At least then its readers won’t be led to believe a great void exists in the literature when, in fact, great efforts have been made by dozens of tennis and general sport historians to fill it, and I think with some success.

Robert J. Lake is a faculty member in the Department of Sport Science, Douglas College, Canada. He has written extensively on historical and sociological aspects of tennis, and has had work published in the Journal of Sport History, the International Journal of the History of Sport, Sport in History, Sport in Society, International Sport Studies, the International Journal of Sport and Society, and the International Review for the Sociology of Sport. In 2016, his first monograph A Social History of Tennis in Britain (Routledge 2015) was awarded the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize by the British Society of Sport History.

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