He also tells the story of a scheme in north London in the 1960s and 70s to produce a champion from among the city’s black kids. Such things are interesting to read about, but the fact of their existence is not proof of their importance. I am sceptical of Berry’s claim that his book reveals a “hidden history” of tennis. Most of the progressive trends he highlights didn’t amount to much. After the war, “socialist tennis” petered out, and a black player of note still hasn’t emerged from Britain’s inner cities. Britain’s most successful ever black player is the current world No 50, Heather Watson – whose advancement up the tennis ladder, Berry points out, was assisted by having a millionaire father.
There is a sense throughout the book that, rather than tennis leaning towards socialism over elitism, its “people’s history” was written through resistance. It is precisely because lawn tennis is elite that, as Berry puts it, it has “always attracted individuals who were mavericks in their thinking and oppositional in their behaviour.” Though the Wimbledon Championships did not become officially professional until 1968, as they grew in popularity over the preceding decades the standards became impossibly high.
Tennis is harder than it looks and so is writing a fluent and enjoyable history of tennis. Berry keeps up the momentum by mixing personalities and themes in a broadly chronological tale that moves easily between Wimbledon and Crouch End, Liverpool and Loughborough, with forays abroad and flashes of autobiography. Social and political context is effortlessly etched in. There is a hidden history that Berry has been at pains to discover, though there’s a sadness to it, too, because it’s lost.