Imagine that in a hidden corner of Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera, Suzanne Lenglen plays tennis. Dressed more lightly than the spectators in their rococo frills, her body is both concealed and revealed in all its ballet. Lenglen’s every tennis stroke is a musician’s glissando a dancer’s glissade perfectly guided and placed as if on a handkerchief on her opponent’s side of the court. (Her father trained her using real handkerchiefs.) And when the pressure of performance is too great, she sips a little cognac on changeovers. Watteau’s lovers in attendance are thrilled, dazzled. Under the spell of Lenglen, their lovemaking later will be enhanced and forgotten, the island’s reigning sculpture of Venus momentarily superseded by a real-life Goddess of the homely. As the other great players of the 1920s described Lenglen: “You can’t imagine a homelier face” (Helen Wills). “Heaven knows no one could call her beautiful” (Bill Tilden). But Lenglen as Goddess, nevertheless. Goddess as mystique, as popular song. The classic WWI song, “There’s a long, long trail a winding,” became a Lenglen trail of spectators winding more than a mile to see her at Wimbledon. Did Louis the Sun King have that? Goddess meaning she smoked and drank through six consecutive Wimbledon singles titles. Goddess meaning tennis as ballet, tennis as the music of Lully, Rameau. The absolutism of Louis XIV gives way to the rococo dreamscapes of Watteau. WWI gives way, a memory. It is Lenglen who conquers France.
by David Linebarger
This is part of an ekphrastic, non-fiction series from author David Linebarger. Follow the series through Sunday September 9.
After leaving a career in music (classical guitar) because of a hand injury, David Linebarger earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Davis. Currently a Professor of Humanities at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, his publications include scholarly articles on Wallace Stevens and Modern Music, poetry in over 25 journals, and two chapbooks: War Stories (Pudding House) and Bed of Light (Finishing Line Press). A national tournament tennis player in his age group, his current project includes a series of nonfiction prose poems on famous tennis players.