The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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20th century’s greatest minds sweat it out in The Tournament

Los Angeles, Aug. 25 (Reuters): Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is the top seed but is knocked out by James Joyce before the final game, set and match.

Charlie Chaplin’s trousers fall down as he stretches his racquet for overhead shots, while Pablo Picasso, despite being knocked out in the second round, is negotiating a lifetime sponsorship deal worth an estimated $400 million.

Such is the scenario imagined by writer John Clarke in a forthcoming novel about the 20th century’s greatest cultural influences battling it out in a two-week tennis tournament.

“It’s about 150 years of ideas,” Clarke said.

“There are a whole lot of people whose work and lives we know a great deal about, and we sort of know the way they behave, but we don’t see them doing it because they are all dead.”

“I thought that breathing a bit of life into them and having them run round in a modern tennis tournament would be pretty good — and miles more interesting (than real players) because they’ve actually got ideas.”

Some 128 players ranging from Louis Armstrong and Franz (“a loner off court”) Kafka to Albert Einstein and Amelia Earhart (“whose best results have not been on any surface at all”) serve and volley their way through the pages of The Tournament, which is being published to coincide with the world’s major tennis competitions. It was published in Australia late last year, in Britain in June and is being published in the US in September by Theia books.

British writer Virginia Woolf, the world ladies number two, is mysteriously seeded seventh; Bill (William) Burroughs surprises no one by “testing positive to every one of 12 banned substances”; and playwright Oscar Wilde, an observer rather than a competitor, remarks languidly that “one should always attend events in which one has no possible interest.”

Clarke, a New Zealander who now lives and works as a satirical writer and performer in Australia, said the idea of marrying great ideas and sport in a cultural history of the 20th century had been rallying around in his head for about 10 years.

“I’ve always thought sport was intrinsically funny. I needed an individual sport and one that could be played by both men and women.

“And I liked the idea of pairing people like (playwright) Samuel Beckett and (French artist) Marcel Duchamp in the men’s doubles, and having the mixed doubles being won by (American actress) Tallulah Bankhead and a man we don’t even know,” Clarke said.

Catching the particular cadences of speech as well as working influential ideas and personalities into their style of play involved a good deal of research on the line-up.

“What I hoped was that if you don’t know a player, you should be able to work out what sort of thing that player did in his real work by the way they play in the tournament. And if you do know, you should be able to go: ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how they would play,'” Clarke said.

Deciding on the eventual winners was a tough call, although Clarke admits that personal preferences came into play.

Unseeded British writer George Orwell prevails over Ireland’s James Joyce in a tough five-set final after realising that although “Joyce’s odyssey would continue unabated, Orwell could win only by playing the big points better.”

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