Love Game: serving up equality

Elizabeth Wilson's new book, Love Game, explores tennis's fertile history of racial, gender and class diversity

At first glance, tennis is an unlikely force for social progress. Started as an upper-middle-class hobby, it invades the British public consciousness once a year, marketed less as a sport and more as a burst of genteel anachronisms. The typical Centre Court crowd is a sea of flag-waving privilege.

Yet, as the feminist author and activist Elizabeth Wilson argues in her new book, Love Game, published later this week, the "secret history" of the professional game has been one in which excluded groups – women, African-Americans, working-class players – have taken on the sport's institutional elitism for their right to play at the highest level. And, in many ways, they have succeeded. For, although the financial barriers to pursuing a career in tennis remain high, its cast of professionals today is – in terms of gender, race, background, sexuality and nationality – largely unrivalled when it comes to diversity.

Wilson herself is not your average sports writer: she cut her teeth as an activist in the gay liberation and women's rights movements of the 70s, and her passionate, fandom-based approach to her subject enables her to focus on details that might elude a more traditional sports historian. (She points out that her background isn't so unusual for a tennis fan: "In the 70s, all the feminists followed tennis, because of Navratilova. It was a lesbian thing.")

Love Game tells the story, for example, of Ora Washington, who dominated the American Tennis Association (for African-American players) between 1929 and 1935. She was desperate to measure herself against the best white women in the world in a game that was segregated in the US until the 1940s, a fact that "horrified" Wilson when she found out. Washington worked as a domestic while her white rivals moved in transcontinental upper-class society. The book also covers the late British commentator Dan Maskell's own thwarted career as a talented working-class boy, examines the origins of the current ATP as a players' union set up to protect athletes from unscrupulous promoters, and devotes a chapter to the explicitly feminist agenda behind the formation of the WTA.

As one of the world's leading individual sports, tennis has perhaps been more structurally receptive to pioneering outsiders who needed to carve their own path – even as its official authorities remain bastions of snobbery and conservatism. "There have been certain working-class players who have really fought those battles – Pancho Gonzales and Jack Kramer [who were instrumental in founding the Association of Tennis Professionals during the 70s], who were not upper-middle class," says Wilson. "Perhaps they realised it's a punishing, tough game, not a 'sissy' game, and their enthusiasm pushed it forward. Same with women – Billie Jean King did bring the women's game forward. It's been about individuals fighting for a different kind of tennis."

The opponents in those fights have mostly been tennis' hidebound authorities – but they have also been reflections of wider social changes, such as gender and sexual equality. Tennis celebrities from Suzanne Lenglen to Serena Williams may have acted as lightning rods for scandal, with the kind of heavy scrutiny that rarely seems to apply to their male counterparts, yet the game's diverse cast of stars have consistently challenged assumptions around gender, sexuality, race and class. Such assumptions were exacerbated, says Wilson, by prejudices about tennis itself as an "effeminate, camp" sport, as opposed to the earthy brute force of the major team sports.

"Sometimes I think sport is the last-chance saloon for traditional masculinity," she sighs. "As a whole, it's still very gendered. The idea, for example, that a gay man can't be sporty – but if a woman is sporty, she must be a lesbian. Those stereotypes still have a hold on people."

Tennis had male champions commonly known to be gay back in the 1930s and 1940s – yet figures such as Bill Tilden and Gottfried von Cramm are still not seen as pioneers in the same way as barrier-breaking early black champions Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, says Wilson. Today, despite a climate in which straight ex-players Andy Roddick and James Blake have joined the Athlete Ally movement in support of greater inclusivity in sports, and a fanbase that skews more gay than other major sports, there is no out male player on the ATP Tour.

These stereotypes, says Wilson, also underpin "the continued real denigration of women's tennis. It's downplayed. It's not considered as important as men's tennis by the media". Some of the blame can be attributed to how it markets itself, now a world away from its image during the 70s. "You go on the WTA website and everyone's Photoshopped – it's almost as if they have to be terribly good looking, in a very conventional way, and do catwalk shows when they're not playing tennis. And they're asked about shopping all the time. I feel a bit torn; I'm all for women flaunting it if they've got it, but it feeds into the idea that female athletes should only be celebrated for their looks, or even just semi-nudity. John Inverdale's comments about Marion Bartoli were disgraceful, really. And there's a massive disavowal of the fact that the male players are erotic objects to the audience, too."

Barriers to progress still exist within and without the game. Yet, last year, the only women on Forbes' annual list of the highest-paid athletes in the world were tennis players; two of those – Serena Williams and Li Na, who currently occupy the top two ranking spots in the world – are women of colour. As Wilson says, this is "really momentous". Perhaps tennis deserves a little more than to be dismissed as the irrelevant preserve of the privileged classes.

Powered by article was written by Alex Macpherson, for The Guardian on Monday 26th May 2014 18.54 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010