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The alternative to croquet

By Christopher Andreae / March 30, 1984

''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.

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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.

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.''