What follows is a collaborative dialogue of art and words on famous Australian tennis players with Mark Shorter, the endlessly innovative Australian artist and head of sculpture at the University of Melbourne. My thanks to Gertrude Contemporary, the leading incubator of contemporary art in Australia, for hooking us up.
Mark’s oil painting of Margaret
My short writing in response:
Margaret Court, LGBQT+
Margaret Court, the Aussie Amazon, did sprints in the sand and lifted weights when workouts for “ladies” were a dirty word. On first encountering her, Martina Navratilova said what so many women felt: “Margaret amazed me with her size and strength.” Nicknamed “The Arm” for her power overhead (the serve, the smash) and incredible reach on court, Margaret becomes “The Neck” in Kodgers’ portrait. Well, Margaret has certainly stuck her neck out with her attacks on Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, and the entire LGBQT community. One way to read Kodgers’ lovingly?-accusingly?-aggressively?-bitterly?-righteously?-tenderly? rendered paint of gloriously thick purples and browns and yellows is within the tradition of still life painting. The fruit, once ripe, is rotting. The flesh, once muscled, sags. Margaret’s ideas, once societal truisms, need to be taken out to the trash.
I do not know which to prefer, the thick sagging glory-anti-glory of Margaret’s neck, or the more rigidly structured clash of colors in Margaret’s face. Eyes cut off, ears cut off, forehead (read brain), lobotomized. Margaret’s implacable, unseeing face suggests something insidious for the LGBQT community that all “others” know well: I do not see you. I do not hear you. I do not know/consider your reality.
When Bobby Riggs brought her roses before humiliating her in The Mother’s Day Massacre (6-2, 6-1) before 50 million television viewers, Court curtsied before playing the most passive, disappointing match of her life: (She, curtsied! Billie Jean King would later write in disbelief.) Four months later, King crushed Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. Yet in her great rivalry with Billie Jean, Margaret Court was the better player: a 22-10 head-to-head advantage and 4-1 in grand slams. The record books, in fact, sing hymns of praise to Margaret Court. Calendar grand slam in 1970. First (and only) mother to be ranked #1. Twenty-four Grand Slam Singles Titles, the all-time record. Kodgers’ portrait of Court invites us—shouts at us–to consider the rest.
My Short Writing Prior to Seeing Mark’s Portrait
Ken Rosewall’s Backhand
The older ones who knew would stop and watch. The younger ones have almost forgotten. Rosewall’s slice backhand as repeatable, as simple, as breath itself. If you could hit it at 22, you could hit it at 70, at 80. Easy on the body, the mind. Not slice, as most say, but struck almost flat with backspin as subtle as the Dao itself: soft yet hard, power yet touch, yin and yang. Rosewall’s backhand can go anywhere; it can do anything or nothing at all: down the line, cross-court, dink, lob, approach shot, passing shot, rally shot, forcing shot . . . Oldest major singles champion at 37, ranked number 2 in the world at 40 years old. Longest gap between first major and last major in three different grand slam championships: Australian, French, US Open. 5 foot 7, 145. Muscles, breath, elegance. Not color and flash, but simplicity, artistry, line. Poussin, Botticelli, the aging Matisse. As tennis players get older, as their bodies become ghosts of their former splendor, they all dream of Rosewall’s backhand.
I remember when I was learning tennis back in the 80s they talked a lot about Rosewall’s backhand. My memory could be failing me but I remember one coach telling me about how Rosewall was able to deftly slice it so that it edged away from the opponents forehand (right-handed players). We practiced this. It was an antidote to the brutal obsession we all had with top spin at the time.
Mark’s oil painting of Ken Rosewall
My portrait of Ken is quite different from your poem. When I started painting him I thought about his endurance on the court. His arms. But as I studied his pictures I became curious about his mouth. It made the most wonderful shapes as he hit the ball. It made me think of rocks and craggy surfaces, gaps in the landscapes and something so worn yet enduring. With this in my mind I approached the painting like I might excavate a surface. Digging and scrapping to find the feature of the face I most was attracted to…that mouth…those teeth..
Greek Tragedy #1: That something within everyone like Achilles’ heel is fated and waiting to fail. For Lew Hoad it was his back.
Greek Tragedy #2: What being born a decade too soon might mean: his homeland (Australia) would exile him, history forget him.* (slightly overstated but not much)
In Medias Res: Pills swallowed, shots taken, drink. Difficult, sometimes impossible, to tie his shoes. Driving all night in uncomfortable cars that first year as a pro with Pancho Gonzalez: “Lew Hoad the only guy who, if I were playing my best tennis, could still beat me.”
Earlier: Lew Hoad a celebrity in 1950s’ black and white: politicians getting wet in locker room showers to shake his hand, tram drivers stopping trains to shout out scores from his Davis Cup matches.
Later: Richard Burton drunk on Shakespeare while Cleopatra sleeps inside the Campo de Tenis in Spain, the house that Lew Hoad built. The great questions of life: How much Cognac, Cointreau should we put in the Sangria? What’s that riff Stan Getz smokes on the sax?
Throughout: Lew’s bedroom eyes, what Jenny, his wife, called them: a forty-year lover of great intensity, his body like a Greek or Roman Statue.
Posters of Lew Hoad on walls of memories inside a young tennis player’s, an artist’s mind: “I’ve finally finished my picture of Lew. I don’t know why it took so long. Perhaps it’s because he was so enigmatic. In the pictures I studied of him he was so graceful, statuesque, classic. That’s why I painted his nose like I was staring up at a Greek god (Mark Shorter).” Lew’s nose looks like it belongs on Mt. Rushmore, his nose both idealized Greek Classical and Roman Realistic. As Michael Taylor writes in Rembrandt’s Nose: Of Flesh & Spirit in the Master’s Portraits, Rembrandt’s noses often “serve to focus the viewer’s attention upon, and to dramatize, the division between a flood of light—an overwhelming clarity—and a brooding duskiness.” In Mark Shorter’s painting, the drama’s between this world of flesh-muscle-bone-sculpture and the blue sky above us whatever its transcendent beauty means. For me, at least, Lew Hoad lives on in both worlds as a tennis player: not a grinder but glorious, his strong wrists and arms hitting incredible winners from any position on the court. What he lacked was shot selection, discipline, percentages . . .
*What turning pro meant: 1) You could not play for your country, so your country (Australia) disowned you. 2) You could not play Wimbledon or any of the grand slams, so the future will never quite be able to count or recount what happened when you walked the earth.
Mark’s Oil Painting of Lew Hoad’s Nose
Jelena Dokic’s Eyes
In junior tournaments, Jelena’s ruthless, unemotional. She even cheats on line calls to avoid her father’s beatings. He smacks her with shoes in the head, punches her in the stomach. He wraps her many wounds in words of love/ambition: “prostitute,” “whore,” “hopeless,” “worthless” . . . Jelena’s only 12, keeps rising in the rankings. Fear of punishment works. “When I painted this work,” Mark Shorter writes, “I thought a lot about her relationship to the game and her father. I was interested in the way she stared back, waiting to receive the ball, waiting to receive a question at a press conference, etc.” Like Australia’s own ACDC or Jimmy Connors at the US Open, the 187th ranked Jelena is rocking the stadium in a string of upsets on her way to the quarterfinals at the 2009 Aussie Open after years of on-court and off-court struggles. After another big upset of a highly ranked opponent, she confesses on court: “I’ve been to hell and back.”
Every day Sarah watched Isaac and Abraham from the window as they went down the valley . . .* At 13, 14, 15, 16, Jelena’s yelled at and whipped, kicked and hit like a mistreated animal. Abraham climbed Mt. Moriah . . . Jelena Dokic only 17, and in the semifinals of Wimbledon. But when Isaac saw Abraham’s face again, it had changed: His face was wild. His whole being was sheer terror. Listening in the car to Jelena’s no-holds-barred autobiography, Unbreakable, I lift my hands from the steering wheel to kill her father, to kill all those fathers who deserve to be killed. I gather myself and finish the drive home. After losing in the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2001, Jelena’s father abandons her in the clubhouse. She has nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep. History’s eyes raise questions. Bodies hit the ball back with all their might.
*All the words in italics are from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and his retelling of the Isaac and Abraham story.
Why the Tennis Gods Made Rod Laver
Mark on his painting: For this painting I focused on his ear because it is such an intimate space. It is where whispers are spoken. It is the site of the annunciation. It is a space of vulnerability. Rod Laver’s iconic stature in the world of tennis is well established. And for those of us who never saw him play this iconic status becomes even more elevated. In a way we access his legend through players that acknowledge his legacy explicitly in their game. Like Roger Federer. When we watch Federer are we also watching Laver in a strange twice or three times removed way?
Why the Tennis Gods Made Rod Laver
The tennis gods looked down on the mess they had made: “We need someone so physically unremarkable and mentally unassuming no one could believe the tennis player he would become.” So the tennis gods made Rod Laver.
“We need someone who will drive for endless miles on the edge of sleep like truckers do, play tennis in risky conditions in the spotlight of dim arenas. We need someone willing to get the snot beat out of him for two straight years by Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, knowing you play the best to become the best, that you learn more from losses not wins.” So the tennis gods made Rod Laver.
Laver listened to whispers he had dirtied the sport, had shamed himself, by turning pro. He was banned from all the grand slams, banned from representing Australia in international competition. Laver listened to the tennis gods whisper.
“We were witnesses at the dawning of something original, new (did we help create it?): how he could hold every shot to the last possible moment before changing its spin or direction or pace, how he could play serve and volley and hit wicked topspin passing shots, how he who could hit all sorts of lobs–defensive, offensive, slice, topspin–and get back as quick as anyone to finish a point with an inside-out lefty smash.”
Laver hands Roger Federer the championship trophy after the 2006 Australian Open in Rod Laver arena. “I want to thank Rod Laver,” Federer begins.
Note: Laver won the calendar grand slam in 1962 as the best amateur player in the world, then won the calendar grand slam a second time in 1969 as the best tennis player in the world.
Photograph of Margaret Court By Eric Koch / Anefo neg. stroken, 1945-1989, 2.24.01.05, item number 923-7130 – http://www.gahetna.nl/over-ons/open-data Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo, CC BY-
Photograph of Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad By Ern McQuillan – National Library of Australia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41128410
Photograph of Ken Rosewall By Unknown author – State Library of Victoria, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33554116
Photograph of Jelena Dokic at the Australian Open By Steve Collis – originally posted to Flickr as Dokic, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5889800
Photograph of Jelena Dokic By JelenaDokicUSopen2011.jpg: Goran.S2derivative work: Qwfp – This file was derived from: JelenaDokicUSopen2011.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19757367
Photograph of Rod Laver By Evers, Joost / Anefo – Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo item number 922-4468, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22343057