Sunday, March 05, 2023

Balls so heavily loaded...

© Christian Poulin 2023
Daney loved tennis, and wrote about it with the same inventivity as his film criticism.

Balls so heavily loaded...
Have you ever watched a tennis match on mute, switching off the sound of your TV? Yes, in all likelihood. You must have observed the extent to which it is no longer the same thing: of course, it’s still very beautiful to watch, very choreographic and all that, but there is suddenly a strong feeling of unreality, of gratuitousness, a somewhat boring prettiness. The sound is missing: the murmurs of the crowd, the referee’s announcements in English, Connors’ grunts etc. But what is missing above all is the sound of the ball, the regular cadence of this noise that may reasonably be compared to heartbeats. If you have played tennis and have become blind (an admittedly absurd hypothesis, but a useful one for my demonstration), you would know how to identify the types of shots from their sound: a first and a second serve don’t produce the same music, an ace produces a specific sound, a topspin lob and a high volley are not the same. And if, blind or not, you have never played tennis in your life, it’s no different: the sound of the ball is what keeps you in the match, what allows you to stay focused and avoid being distracted by thousand different incidents in the image. This sound allows you to not see everything; it regulates your vision.
Have you ever seen a tennis ball? Yes, in all likelihood. At least one of those old tennis balls that one throws against the wall in the schoolyard, deflated, hairy, dead. And what about those balls, yellow at Roland-Garros and white at Wimbledon, that, over a few games, are hit with a great violence before ending up in the hands of the children that collect them? The tennis ball is seamless, its weight must not exceed 58.47 grams and its diameter would cause a scandal if it were smaller than 0.0635 metre. A tennis ball is a very concrete object.
Have you ever thought about what a tennis ball represents? For example, if you are watching tennis on television, it represents your gaze. This is why the cameras are always located high up, so that you don’t miss an inch of the ball’s trajectories, so that you don’t lose sight of your gaze, and so that, from your armchair, you can distinguish between the awful balls that are out and the flawless ones that are in. And because it’s flattering to be placed in the position of the umpire, you don’t ask yourself if, perhaps, tennis might be filmed differently. Ignoring the ball, if I may say so, losing sight of it for an instant? But that’s a different story.
For minor players, even for the good ones, the ball is an object to get rid of at any cost, and get rid of properly, if they want to play well. But it’s completely different for great players. There must surely be a moment when this concrete, hairy and regulated object becomes abstract, ideal and phantasmal. The ball, constantly racing to either side of the net, embodies many things: hatred, phobia, self-assertion, fear of winning, desire to lose or to punish. In any case, each player rushes toward it, enacting a sort of choreographic enigma. And who can say that it’s not a part of their body or even of their soul that they are sending away when returning  the ball? 
Take Connors. He “leans into the ball”, as they say, grunting even. He goes even further:  he wraps his body around the ball like a pelota player in a large court. If he could follow the ball to the opposite side, he would do so. Sometimes, no longer able to contain himself, he breaks a taboo and jumps over the net (which is forbidden), trying to make us understand that he and the ball are one and  the same thing. He’s a formidable fighter who wants to be everywhere, and when he returns the ball, it’s himself that he propels forward, to the great satisfaction of the audience who intuitively understand the generosity inherent in the way that Connors is the ball.  
Take Borg now. He’s not a very talkative player, dispiritingly lucid and modest. Yet, he always says the same thing: I am the best because I play each point as if it were the match point. For him, no minor balls, only major ones. If he played against you, not only would he win (6-0, 6-0, 6-0), he would also find a way to play each point  as if his life depended on it. He’s overdoing it, you would say once defeated. But no. Borg’s supremacy these last few years has only been about that: for him, the ball is just the ball, it doesn’t mean anything, it carries no affect, no hate, no desire to please or to be loved. As Gertrude Stein might say “a ball is a ball is a ball is…” 
There remains the McEnroe mystery. Observe him between volleys, he’s the opposite of Borg. Borg is a moving object that must never stop: his legwork, his way of shuffling back to the baseline, of constantly moving, his presence are impressive to all his opponents. Except for McEnroe. Between two shots, in a time window that might be infinitesimal, the American unwinds, disassembles himself, withdraws. I’m not talking about his mind, which is sharper than a fox, I’m talking about his body and this bit of the subconscious that courses through his body. He is so proud and big-headed that he always seems a bit surprised to see the ball coming back at  him. For him, the ball is the other, less the adversary than adversity itself, forcing him, to the joy of everyone, to face up.  

First published in Libération, 7 July 1981. Reprinted in Ciné journal, 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translated by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.