For Jews on Film, the Tennis Lawn Is Always Greener

The structured, elegant world of tennis has long been a symbol of elusive upward mobility, which makes it the perfect symbol for Jewish filmmakers.

As the greatest tennis tournament in the world – Wimbledon – reaches its climax, it's an apt time to pause and consider the symbolism of the sport for Jews. The relationship between the court and the Chosen People is a complicated one, perhaps best illustrated on film, where the propriety and ritual of the game has served as a visual stand-in for the elusive world of the goys.

It's hard to think of something less yiddische and less heimische than the elitist home of English lawn tennis -- The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet. The strawberries and champagne, the grass, the outdoors, the upper crust British royalty, aristocracy and other celebrities who populate the audience, its strict codes of conduct, forms of dress, rules and behaviors, and the obligatory whites… It's a world alien to Jews, located in a part of London without a significant Jewish community.

But it's precisely this very un-Jewishness that may hint at tennis' appeal. Tennis, in its middle-class nature, provided an assimilatory aspirational avenue for Jews desperate to pass into the upper echelons of English society. In the sport's demand (especially at Wimbledon) that its players wear pristine and spotlessly white attire, the sport literally affords the opportunity to “whiten up,” to pass as white both literally and figuratively.

Tennis has proved attractive to Jews, both as spectators and players. Currently, there are enough for the London “Jewish Chronicle” to keep its readers updated on the progress of Jewish players in this year's tournament, including Israelis Shahar Peer and Andy Ram, as well as Jesse Levine, Wayne Odesnik, and Scott Lipsky.

Meanwhile, Jewish filmmakers have tapped into the pomp and circumstances to elegantly and effectively suggest a world just out of reach. In “The Royal Tenenbaums” (dir. Wes Anderson, 2001) and “The Squid and the Whale” (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2005) tennis is shown early on as a way of coding the middle-class status of the Jewish families in both films.

In the former, Richie (Luke Wilson) is an obsessive tennis player, a virile athlete that counters stereotypes of Jews as scholars. Richie lunges aggressively at every shot, sweat blotching his tracksuit, fiercely competitive even though he is only playing against his wife and youngest son. When he sends hard shots directly at them, one feels his deep inner frustration embedded in the ball.   

But the Jewish king of the court, at least on film, is Woody Allen. Tennis serves as a backdrop in his classic 1977 film “Annie Hall” when Alvy Singer (Allen) first meets the love of his life, the eponymous, gentile Hall (Diane Keaton). The sport stands as a metaphor for his attempt to ingratiate himself into a WASP lifestyle that is not his own and to which, through the failure of his relationship with Annie, he learns he doesn’t belong.

The use of tennis in “Annie Hall”, however, serves merely as a prelude to his “Match Point” in 2005 which takes its title from tennis and uses the sport as its central defining trope, both literal and metaphorical.

The thriller stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris Wilton, a parvenu professional tennis player-cum-coach at an elitist club in London. Through connections made on the tennis court, Chris marries into a wealthy family, but his social position is always precarious. It is particularly threatened when he has an affair with his wife’s brother’s fiancee, Nola Rice, played by Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson. To preserve his privileged position, Chris plans the perfect murder.

Allen uses tennis to explore his themes of social climbing, morality, greed, lust, and success in much the same way as he did in his earlier “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989). In that film, a very successful Jewish ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) similarly plans a perfect murder when his intended victim threatens to reveal their affair.

In “Match Point,” though, the Jewish world of Manhattan is swapped for the goyische milieu of London and Allen rejects the Dostoyevskian title of his earlier film for a tennis metaphor, focusing the film around the central motif of luck: When the ball hits the net it could fall either way.

Reuters