Making art and history of sports

Sports writing has the power to transform a simple match into a narrative that encapsulates a nation’s history.

Published : Feb 03, 2024 10:03 IST - 3 MINS READ

American tennis players Clark Graebner (left) and Arthur Ashe (1943 - 1993), UK, 8th June 1966.
American tennis players Clark Graebner (left) and Arthur Ashe (1943 - 1993), UK, 8th June 1966. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

American tennis players Clark Graebner (left) and Arthur Ashe (1943 - 1993), UK, 8th June 1966. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sport is seldom simply sport. Viv Richards going out to bat for the West Indies carried with him the pride of his race. Muhammad Ali made a point by first refusing the draft (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”) and then by changing his religion. Every time he won, the underdog won.

When I first read  Levels of the Game, which describes a match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at the US Open in 1968, I was struck by what sports writing could do. Even a straightforward match can be made to carry a nation’s history. The author, the brilliant John McPhee, weaves together so many strands.

Both Ashe and Graebner were born in 1943. Ashe was black; Graebner was white. Ashe was “a trim arrangement of sinews,” while Graebner could be “an ad for a correspondence course in muscle development.” Graebner is a Republican, with a signed photograph of Richard Nixon on his desk at home; Ashe is a Democrat who, Graebner says, even plays tennis “with the lackadaisical, haphazard mannerisms of a liberal.” A clash of archetypes, then, as well as top-rated players. The book has been called “the high point of American sports journalism.”

Ashe and Graebner were both amateurs, with Ashe being an army officer and his opponent a printing-paper salesman. McPhee traces Ashe’s origins: his forefathers came on a ship called  Dodingham in 1735, which carried 167 slaves from West Africa. Ashe and Graebner are friends and play the Davis Cup together. When it is suggested that the white man’s gait is a sign of arrogance, Ashe points out that a childhood medical condition makes it almost impossible for Graebner to bend at the waist. McPhee adds the detail that when “he brushes his teeth, he places his feet apart and leans like an A-frame against the mirror.”

The author is at least as interesting as the players.

Now 92, McPhee is seen as a pioneer of creative nonfiction. He has written classics on freight transportation, shad fishing, birch-bark canoes, the cultural history of oranges, and a four-volume survey of the geology of North America. His  Draft No. 4 is a masterclass on the writer’s craft, collected from eight essays he wrote for The  New Yorker magazine. “A compelling structure in nonfiction,” he writes, “can have an attracting effect analogous to a storyline in fiction.”

At one point in the match, McPheee quotes Graebner as thinking, “If I had his backhand and he had my forehand, we’d be invincible.” Graebner’s forehand is described as “Wagnerian.”

Ashe goes on to win the title, cheered by his Davis Cup teammates. There is a suggestion that the Americans — Charlie Pasarrell, Donald Dell, Graebner, and Ashe — would rather win the Davis Cup than individual titles. When Ashe beats Tom Okker in the final, he “bows to them, giving them something of his moment as the winner of the first United States Open championship.”

As an aside, the US beat India in the Davis Cup that year, with Ramanathan Krishnan defeating Graebner for India’s lone win.

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