Barnstormers (2016)


All signs are that the Story of Tennis from the 1920s on, though its glories and wonders merit such, will never be visualized in a documentary film.

The dramas of that cavalcade have been chronicled in written histories–you think of Hornbluth’s and DeFord’s books on Bill Tilden; Ray Bowers’s comprehensive Forgotten Victories: A History of the Pro Tennis Wars 1926-1945; Vladimir Nabokov’s capturing of “lawn tennis” as dramatized by “Ned Litam” (“Ma Tilden” spelt backwards) and Lolita playing tennis in Lolita; Bobby Riggs’s portraits of Tilden, Budge and Gonzales and his marvelous account of battling Jack Kramer on a post World War Two  barnstorming pro tennis tour in Riggs’s 1949 memoir, Tennis is My Racket; and Larry Englemann’s history of the fabled match between Lenglen and Wills in the 1920s in Cannes in The Goddess and the American Girl.

The latest sign of the Lost Adventure: The Tennis Channel has this month (June 2016) premiered Barnstormers, a documentary supposedly about professional tennis from its beginnings in the 1920s through its triumph in the creation of open tennis in the 1970s. “Triumph” because for decades the tennis powers looked upon professional tennis as disgraceful, a threat to the widely claimed purity and integrity of amateur tennis, and excluded the professional players, most of them former amateur champions, from both major and minor tournaments, obliging the professionals to arrange tournaments of their own and conduct long, taxing and ill-funded barnstorming tours in which a few players battled one another in often shabby venues. Of course, amateur was “amateur” and skeptics coined the term “shamateurism”: the best amateur players were quietly paid for playing in tournaments and giving tennis exhibitions at posh tennis and country clubs. The practice was Unmentionable.

Just about everything is wrong with Barnstormers. There is this laughable mistake at its center: The relentless focus on the financial and political and logistical challenges to early professional tennis grows boring in a full length documentary: the strange viewpoint begs all the pressing questions: What about the players? What was the play like? Tennis is beautiful, artistic, and essentially competitive.

Who were the heroes?

And so, given the narrow and dull focus of Barnstormers,  the following occurs:

The Players. Despite the advertisements, there is next to nothing about the 1920s and 1930s  (“The Early Years”) of men’s professional tennis. Karel Kozeluh, the first world professional champion, is not mentioned. Tilden is barely acknowledged in a few stills and in a few seconds of video; indeed, players glimpsed in the sparse brief clips of match play are rarely identified. There is one image of Cochet. Nusslein never appears. Cash and Carry Pyle goes unmentioned. Yet there is an even more stupid oversight in this fatuous documentary: Except for perhaps three or four stills, and one or two phrases in Robert Redford’s excellent narration (excellent within the fundamental constraints), the great Don Budge is the Invisible Man of Barnstormers!  Even Fred Perry’s sparse coverage is generous compared to the invisible Budge.

Virtually no competitive results are given–which players prevailed in the matches, the variety of styles, the on court personalities. Again, Barnstormers shows the common failing when it comes to tennis documentaries: you never see any extended video coverage of the players. What were their styles? Their best shots? What did a classic match look like? We’ve heard about Tilden’s ruthless and near-perfect destruction of Johnston in one of their U.S. Nationals finals; the sublimity of Budge vs. Cramm at Wimbledon in a fabled 1937 Davis Cup match; Vines’s sublime play against any comer when he was at the top of his game in the mid 1930s; ditto Hoad in the 1950s; the youthful Kramer’s big game destruction machine; and perhaps most memorably, Gonzales gliding around the court hitting winners; followed a few years later by Laver conducting his heartless acts of destruction. But we never see any of these.

Appropriately for an odyssey of professional tennis, Barnstormers pays the most attention, though equally forlorn in emphasis, to the 1950s. Kramer receives attention as promoter and organizer of professional tennis tours (almost nothing is said about his peerless tennis). Gonzales appears in a few stills and a few seconds of matchplay; somebody mentions he was the player to beat “for a long time” (the full given account of his magnificent reign). Segura merits even less attention. Ditto the Australians–Sedgman, Cooper, Hoad, Rosewall, Laver, Stolle, and Roche. Comparatively generous attention is given Butch Buchholz and especially to the likeable British player, Mike Davies, who turned to professional tennis in the period. Yet as Kramer says in The Game: My Forty Years in Tennis:

“When I did sign my European troupe after the vote against open tennis in 1960, the only Englishman I signed was Mike Davies whose greatest claim to fame was that he once reached the semi’s of the Wimbledon doubles.”

In truth, the amateur and professional tennis of these players is forgettable. Just why they are featured (Barnstormers is dedicated to Davies who passed in 2015) is simple: first, and symptomatically, Barnstormers is too late! Not only have nearly all of the 1930s and 1940s tennis heroes in question passed away; Kramer, Gonzalez, Riggs, Hoad and other principals of the 1950s and even of the 1960s, players you would immediately seek to interview, have left us. Buchholz, Davies and Trabert, none in the front rank, remained to talk about the era.

Styles.  The cyclical large drama in tennis–stylistic challenges and responses–is entirely missing in Barnstormers. It is the last thing that should be missing.

The Baseline Game versus the Big Game. Heavy top-spin and its antidotes. Big Serves against Precision Returns. Tilden spending winter months on an indoor court developing a backhand drive to offset Johnston’s punishing top spin forehand; Riggs trying to find an Answer to Kramer’s first and second serves; Budge’s advice to McEnroe to chip down the middle and take the net to rob Lendl of passing angles; Federer’s tactic of moving opponents nearer to sidelines to open up an open court winner; Nadal’s heavy looping topspin forehand and the working out of an answer among the ATP players.

The stylistic drama is central to tennis being a stirring refuge in a brutal world.

Professional tennis has always been a superb stage for playing out the stylistic dramas at the heart of the game. The level of play in professional tennis, hard times to the Open era, has created inspired winning styles.

But Barnstormers wants none of that.

In its odd focus, Barnstormers displays prominent manners of our Correct times: it was not necessary to talk about which players were better than other players; it was all right to leave the impression that there might not have been all that much difference between the level of play of Kramer and Gonzales and that of Davies and Ayala.

And besides, the Barnstormers producers must have agreed, today’s fan probably doesn’t want to know about Laver. Let alone Kramer, Budge, Gonzales, and Tilden.

Tennis has changed since those days, and today’s power backcourt game and the prodigies who play it have taken the game to new levels. All to the good. (One hopes that “racket technology” will not turn the game into something beyond its classic beauty.) But there were glories and beautiful play in the earlier periods and sadly they are being lost forever.

Apropos, a couple of closing anecdotes. A few years ago a tennis old timer in the San Francisco Bay Area told me that I might find hidden away somewhere in Villa Montalvo, a museum in Monte Sereno in California, a treasure trove of rare films of Helen Wills playing practice and tournament matches. The villa had been the home of James Phelan, a prominent California statesman and businessman who became good friends with Wills; he saw to it that Wills was filmed playing practice matches on the courts of the Villa and on other courts in the area, for example, against members of the Stanford men’s team. I pestered museum leaders. Eventually, the lead administrator arranged a search of the Villa. Were those films somewhere in that huge complex? Well, they had been. What happened to them? We eventually discovered that they had been discarded during a remodeling of Villa Montalvo.

And the late tennis historian, Larry Englemann, told me a few years ago that in Carmel, California, where Helen Wills lived part of her life, the legendary late operator of the Carmel Valley Tennis Ranch, John Gardiner, reportedly had a collection of films of major tennis matches in the 1920s and 1930s. Following some sleuthing, I was told they have disappeared.

I’m certain of this: If there were a trove of film of classic tennis players and matches, the people who made Barnstormers wouldn’t be interested.