As many of you know, I like tennis.
Where I live, spring has finally sprung, and this means tennis season is back on. I usually try to read a tennis themed book in the run up to the European season, and today it just felt right to chill my tennis-tired bones after two days of matches (who doesn’t go over-board on the first chance of playing outdoors?!) with an attempt to finish off some current reads. One of those was Peter Bodo’s The Courts of Babylon, first published in 1995.
I usually like to start of my reviews with a quote, but in this case I simply could not find any meaningful, witty, or interesting quote that was not offensive in any way.
Which brings me to the issue I have with this book: While there are some interesting tidbits about tennis in the 1980s, much of the book is made up of yellow press gossip, and Bodo’s own – VERY frustrating – notions on not only the the game and politics of tennis in the 80s, but also included his own judgement of the private lives of players, which was incredibly biased. And when I say biased, I do mean full of patronising, imperialist, sexist, and bigoted comments.
Here are a few examples:
Let’s start with an innocent generalisation:
“Professional tennis players are rarely well-rounded individuals. Many of them are result-oriented, rule-addled, lavishly compensated victims of a totalitarian way of life.”
Not to mention the constant assumptions about people’s motivations or state of mind:
A few years ago Steffi Graf bought a lavish duplex in a new, fashionable building near Union Square in Manhattan. This was a remarkable choice for a thoroughly German girl going on twenty-three whose only other personal residence was a room upstairs in the enormous house she built for her family in her native Bruehl, Germany—a room that her agent Phil De Picciotto once described as “a really, really neat room.”
And don’t get me started on what the hell he might supposed would be more “appropriate” for a “thoroughly German girl”…
But while we are at it, let’s look at more national stereotyping:
This was not the only fashion error promulgated by Adidas, the German company that once produced tasteful, bold, and above all sporty clothes for characters as different as Stan Smith and Ilie Nastase. At about the same time that what-you-see-is-what-you-get Stef, Citizen Stef, was dressed like a walking Rorschach test, Adidas had leggy, petloving, family-centric Steffi Graf wearing shirts that came directly from the Salvador Dali school of design. One of those shirts appeared to be made from strands of genetic material, suggesting that maybe the Germans were up to their old tricks again, trying to revive some Uberfrau theme from their dark past.
This is the point where I would like to call the author a few names, but there is more (oh, so much more…)
Australians, whose only conscious national dogma is informality, like to call their nation “Oz.” Being a literal bunch, the Aussies don’t appreciate how accurate—and funny—that characterization is. But the problem with Oz—or other fantasy lands such as Disney World—is that spending too much time there becomes, well, boring. You might be oblivious to that fundamental fact of life if you live there, but it is brought home dramatically when you visit. Spend enough time in Oz, and you can feel the boredom creeping into your days with tidal consistency. That’s when you realize that there are disadvantages to developing as Australia did, in natural isolation from the peppery cross-influence enjoyed by the other, contiguous continents. On the surface, Australian people seem a lot like Americans. They inhabit a vast, underpopulated nation rich in natural resources and they have a rich store of frontier myths and sprawling suburbs. The Australians exterminated aborigines, the continent’s indigenous people, with a relish that even American settlers were hard put to match. Besides, while walking around in some quaint European city, you could easily mistake an Aussie for a Yank at fifty yards. They share an affinity for ghastly T-shirts, short pants, white socks pulled up to the knee, and running shoes that allow you to see if not hear them coming from a mile away. Australians surf. They drink beer. They barbecue. They drink beer. They like their own elementary version of football (Aussie rules). And they like to live in one-story, ranch-style houses with big garages and little windows that look out on identical setups where other people barbecue and drink beer.
Still with me?
There was a point during this part of the book where I still thought that maybe Bodo just wanted be cheeky-charming. It obviously didn’t work.
Where I completely lost it with Bode, tho, was when he honed in on Women’s tennis, the WTA, Billie Jean King’s sexuality, oh and Martina Navratilova’s too, you know, because the public portrayal of their personal lives is so erosive to the sport, whereas male players are mere eccentircs.
Let me make this clear: I don’t object to the mention of elements of the personal lives of players, but the chapters didn’t contain anything worthwhile – absolutely NOTHING – about tennis.
I should have thrown in the towel on this book when Bodo commented as follows on King’s match against Bobby Riggs as follows:
“On that day, Billie Jean probably got 80 percent of the American population momentarily interested in something that was marginally about tennis. And that is a heck of an achievement.
But the important question is: Was that Battle of the Sexes a significant event in the growth of tennis and society’s march toward equality and female empowerment, or was it a chimerical happening that evaporated not long after the last ball was struck?”
The above are just a few of the passages that I had a problem with. There were many, many more, that I don’t want to bore you with.
Overall, Bodo makes a lot of statements and assumptions, but few of them seem to be discussing issues from any perspectives other than his own bias. And trying to save his insults with a paragraph or two about how great certain players are does nothing to rehabilitate his self-congratulatory, dumbass comments, because the statement that they are or were great players does not require Bodo’s validation – their respective titles and match records evidence this already.