The alternative to croquet

By

''TENNIS,anyone?'' - who was it that first uttered those electrifying words? My researches have produced nothing more than the startling fact that Humphrey Bogart, of all unlikely people, spoke it as the sole line in his first role on stage.

That world-shaking information apart, and in spite of all the heroics that Connors, Borg, and Billie Jean King have introduced into the game - not to mention You Cannot Be Serious McEnroe - there remains an Edwardian summer garden-party flavor to tennis. I mean, they still serve strawberries (though the prices have gone professional) at Wimbledon.

Lawn tennis! - the game for anyone: anyone, that is, with a large enough garden and plenty of time to spare after tea. Basically (or originally, anyway) tennis is just a rather energetic alternative to croquet. And, like croquet, one of its undoubted delights for the Edwardians and Victorians was that both ''girls and boys'' could ''come out to play'' it. Here was a running-jumping-smashing pastime in which la difference made no difference. Well , not much. Of course even today there's nothing quite like mixed doubles . . . unless it's mixed singles.

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John Lavery's ''The Rally'' - a watercolor of fine tonal mastery painted about 1885 - seems to modern eyes the very essence of all that is late-19 th-century-garden-partyish about early lawn tennis. It belonged to summer; not as it is now, a year-round affair. Lavery's happy piece of observation shows it part-and-parcel of a sunny afternoon. It seems strange that conservative critics of the day found this picture (and a large oil of the same date and theme) hard to accept. It was the modernity of the subject that troubled them. ''The Rally'' was painted as little as 11 years after lawn tennis had been invented (by the Englishman, Major Wingfield).

Lavery had just returned to his adopted Glasgow after three years working in France. Some of that time the young artist spent studying at the Academie Julian in Paris. He must have been aware of artists like Manet and Degas painting scenes of modern life, though in style he was conventional compared with the Impressionists. It was the more academic painter Bastien-Lepage who influenced him. This painter advocated outdoor painting and naturalism, but the light in his pictures has, with justice, been described as ''gray.'' Lavery himself had even produced a picture in France he called ''A Gray Summer's Day,'' and the tones of ''The Rally'' have none of the highly charged color and broken hues of the optically experimental Impressionists. It was Bastien also who, on their only encounter, had advised Lavery: ''Always carry a sketchbook. Select a person - watch him - then put down as much as you remember. Never look twice. At first you will remember very little, but continue and you will soon get complete action.''

In fact, ''The Rally'' is a refined piece of work in which spontaneity is still present in spite of a tidy completeness and finalized economy. It is not at all a mere ''sketch.''

It seems certain that this excellent picture contains a strong element of humor or visual wit; and I do not believe this is solely the result of one's inevitable bemusement at the sartorial impossibility of lady tennis players a century ago. You could say that this young woman's swing of the racket is a triumph of athleticism over costume. But Lavery has used her dress to subserve the action: All that bustle and flick of the heavy skirt, the close fit of the bodice, and even the rim of the straw hat - imagine that hat on the center court today! - contribute to the very moment of her caught energy. . . .

But, a mystery, where is the ball? Is it (a bit smudgy) in precise contact with her racket? There are four or five of them littered about the place, but I certainly can't see one flying. The viewer is almost led to suspect that the poor woman is, quite simply, hopeless: eager and willing, surely, but hopeless at this newfangled game, and in spite of much arm-waving, all the balls she manages to hit just scud frustratingly into the net.

Her ''opponent'' in his white flannels brings a mixture of the patronizing and the uncertain to his stance. He clearly hasn't seen a ball his side of the net recently (''The Rally'' is therefore an ironic title), and doesn't necessarily expect one in the near future. He is almost folding his arms, and it is not hard to imagine a quizzical twinkle creeping into his eye. As for the couple in the bleachers: He has taken up a nonchalant-seeming pose which means ''Why on earth do they let women loose on court?'' while she, under the parasol, smiles in sisterly sympathy for the woman player's predicament.

Or so I imagine.

But the nuances of the picture are such that the event could be completely otherwise. It could be that the woman - who after all is extremely animated - is trouncing her opponent; that the ball she has just hit is invisible only because of its lightning speed; that the man is so overwhelmed by her play that all he can do is stand there, baffled, and let the aces fly past him. . . .

It is a painting that makes one wish lawn tennis had been a divertissement for the rich in Jane Austen's day. Her meticulously devastating analysis of motives and manners would have squeezed plenty of prejudice and pride out of a court sporting young ladies and gentlemen, rackets in hand and net between. There is a more recent writer, however, for whom tennis has been a preoccupation and symbol of social atmosphere - and that is John Betjeman. In at least two of his hilariously telling ''love'' poems set in the rhododendron and pine-woody Surrey Society Belt, the heroine is a tennis player.

There's the marvelous ''Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,'' idol of the subaltern who is equally smitten by her forehand and her charms. And there is ''Pam.'' Both poems contain outrageous laughter that deftly falls somewhere between P.G. Wodehouse, ''The Great Gatsby,'' a racy sports column in an evening paper, and ''Hiawatha's Wedding Feast.'' It is a mix which - even to one who has never (as I did in my youth) played tennis against a girlfriend of stunning superiority in Camberley or Aldershot - is as giggle-worthy as any poetry could be.

Here's a glimpse of Pam: Pam, I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl, Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength of five: That old Malvernian brother, you zephyr and khaki shorts girl, Although he's playing for Woking, Can't stand up To your wonderful backhand drive.m

Cricket, anyone?

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