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Examining grace

There seems to be a general acceptance among tennis aficionados that Federer is the prettiest to watch, even if they differ with regard to who is the best among these equals

T.M. Krishna Published 30.06.23, 05:41 AM
Game-changer: Serena Williams.

Game-changer: Serena Williams. Sourced by The Telegraph

On June 11, 2023, Novak Djokovic lifted his twenty-third Grand Slam trophy to become the male tennis player with the maximum number of Grand Slam titles under his belt. He surpassed two senior contemporary icons, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Within hours of this formidable achievement, the debate about who is the greatest among the three resurfaced. Reams were written by supporters of each one of them. There were others who provided objective arguments against any comparison. Lurking among, and at times just below the surface of, these discussions was the point that beauty is one of the determining factors. Greatness, some said, cannot be weighed just on the basis of numbers, prowess, grit, discipline and endurance. The ease and elegance with which the individual played the game must be factored in. The ones making this argument were usually members of the Federer camp. Interestingly, even those who placed Nadal or Djokovic higher than Federer did not counter this claim. There seems to be a general acceptance among tennis aficionados that Federer is the prettiest to watch, even if they differ with regard to who is the best among these equals.

When the playing looks fluid, strokes are rounded and smooth, movements are like a ballet dancer and, the effortlessness and flourish are visible, the tennis player is designated as stylish. One stroke in tennis that highlights this point is the backhand. The single-handed backhand has always been construed as aesthetic (used in the sense of beauty). When Stefan Edberg ran across the court, bent his knees, and hit his single-handed backhand down the line, it was a delight. My heart skipped a beat. But when Jimmy Connors or Andre Agassi pounded the ball with their double-handed backhand, it was a powerful statement. Visually, though, it seemed harsh. Unfortunately, today’s assessments of tennis-playing beauty follow very similar reasonings. However, this is not limited to tennis. We will find that the fundamental parameters that guide us in coming to these beauty-related conclusions in many sports are indeed similar. Cricketers or golfers who are categorised as ‘beautiful to watch’ conform to the same internalised yardsticks.


As an artist, the use of words associated with an artistic sensibility in the context of non-art activities fas­cinates me. It is these overlaps that confuse us when we are faced with the philosophical question of whether a specific field is an art form or not. Some believe sport is art, others aver that cooking is an art form. What they are actually referring to is the ‘art-likeness’. And this is not a serious understanding. It is an interpretation born largely from a judgement of visual beauty. That which can be perceived as beautiful is simplistically construed as art. It is fair to conclude that there is a conscious or subconscious connection between what we consider beautiful in sports and what the art world designates as beautiful. In the case of sports, it would be the visual arts and the performing arts of movement that influence these tastes.

But such a proposition collapses all art into a monolithic block. In society, arts are divided and sub-divided. Social, cultural and class stratifications place every art form within specific localities and communities. There are diverse ideas of beauty, but all of them are not placed on an equal footing. Art forms that are practised or preferred by the elite are far more influential and shape social preferences. The generalised sense of beauty that many sports have imbibed comes from them.

Much like the arts, sports too become aspirational only when the elite participate in them, both as sports­people and patrons. Some sports came from the elite, others were appropriated, re-structured and then claimed ownership of. The influence of their social sensibilities on these sports is immense. It is these skewed ideas of beauty that still play out in our minds when we assess sporting greatness. Such judgements are closely linked to socially prevalent markers of discrimination, such as race, colour and gender. Many elite sports were dominated by the white man. They configured the visual determinants of beauty based on their entitled life experience, constructed social mores and morals — a lifestyle entrenched in an artificial sense of superiority that negates or is condescending towards the diverse. Aggressive, sharp and bodily styles of playing tapped into the notion of lessened whiteness, racial inferiority and un-lady-like behaviour. But there are gradations even here. When a white man plays in such a manner, it seems less uncouth, and is even explained off as assertiveness. But the same from a brown or black person is received differently.

Women, more than men, are expected to conform to these unspoken socio-sports etiquettes. Monica Seles was probably the first to move away from these preconceived women-like conditionalities. It was not just her game that was considered ungainly, her ‘grunt’ also came in for criticism. Men who grunted were not appreciated, but there was, at least, a reluctant acceptance. This was probably because machismo is associated with the guttural sound. With a woman, the perception changed and the attack was severe. Yet, being white provided Seles with a lot of leeway. When the Williams sisters entered the tennis arena, they were recognised as great talents, but there was discomfort with their appearance and the distinct culture they brought onto the court. But Serena was unstoppable. And, because of her reign, the very idea of women’s tennis was challenged. Until her, elite, white-centric imagery hovered around woman’s tennis. When coloured players came in, they were probably expected to emulate that model both on and off the court. Serena’s attitude, killer spirit and ‘unwoman-like’ physique upturned the tennis world. Her success has had a huge impact on how woman’s tennis is played today. The game has become physical, big hitting has become a norm and it is much faster. Yet, the question remains whether this style of woman’s tennis is considered beautiful. Maybe, for that transformation to happen, we need many more Serenas to emerge, leading to a change in the racial composition of tennis players. Basketball is a case in point, where the dominance of black players has redrafted people’s imagination of what constitutes beautiful playing.

The need for effortlessness to be certified as beautiful also needs exploration. Effortlessness camouflages physical effort. This is applauded not only in sport, but the same is also expected in elite music. I was told not to show the audience the effort that went into singing. If this is expected of a man, you can imagine what is expected of a woman singer. Social elites attempt to erase the body because they see it as a conduit to the ugliness of reality, the mundane and strenuous. In their work, art, writing and thought, they express a considerable distance from the physical. Greater the distance, the more cerebral they believe they are. It is also true that all the physical work society needs is performed by those whom the elites marginalise. Any display of physical effort drags the elites down a little from their high chair, closer to the plebian. When a tennis player makes it look so easy, he conforms to the ideals of privilege.

Discrimination begins with the emergence of powerful clusters of cultural sameness. These groups not only acquire wealth and power but also dictate the culture that the ‘rest’ are expected to abide by. With time, the norms they put in place become entrenched and influence all human activities. Therefore, we have to consider the definition of grace in sport with care because it has very little to do with sport, and is more a reflection of our limited vision.

T.M. Krishna is a leading Indian musician and a prominent public intellectual

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