An all-round sportsman who enjoyed cricket, football and croquet, this British composer was particularly fond of a spot of tennis. But he wasn't an opponent to be messed with. ‘Ben was intensely, remorselessly competitive in an almost sadistic way,’ remembers author Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. ‘When you were beaten by him at squash or tennis… you literally felt that he’d been “beating” you.
Not quite French Open material but Debussy did enjoy an occasional game of tennis with Ravel. And his ballet Jeux is based on tennis, albeit rather loosely. ‘In the park at twilight, a tennis ball has got lost,’ begins the scenario. And apart from the tennis court setting and the costumes, that's pretty much it for the tennis theme. So overall it doesn't look like Debussy would have appeared on Centre Court.
Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg seem an unlikely pair, but the tennis court at the former's Beverly Hills home was the scene of a fiercely-fought weekly tennis match between the two composers. According to one observer, Gershwin was ‘nonchalant’ and ‘chivalrous’, always ‘playing to an audience’; Schoenberg, on the other hand, was ‘overly eager’ and ‘choppy’ and had ‘learned to shut his mind against public opinion’. We're talking strictly about tennis, of course.
‘My primary occupations are playing tennis and scoring the opera,’ wrote Prokofiev, hard at work on his opera The Gambler, which he completed in 1917. Despite his seeming enthusiasm for the game, by all accounts he was no Russian Andy Murray. And according to the opera director Serafima Birman, one of the last matches Prokofiev took part in was a heated affair in which he argued every point. Not long afterwards the composer took up volleyball instead.
When he wasn't busy coming up with a system for ordering notes in music, the Austrian composer could be found surrounded by scribbles and sketches for countless inventions. One of which was a notation system for tennis. As an accomplished tennis player, Schoenberg wanted to be able to record the moves of his tennis games so, in between rounds of four-sided chess, another of his inventions, he devised his own tennis shorthand, capable of recording everything from 'player rushes to the net' to 'foot fault'.
The musical monarch might not have written Greensleeves but he did compose and he did play tennis, which is enough to qualify for the composers’ Wimbledon. He was also an accomplished horse-rider, archer, pole-vaulter, high-jumper, and wrestler. Plenty of distractions then from his more bloodthirsty appetites. Legend has it that he was playing tennis when his wife Anne Boleyn was executed.
Illustration: Jonathan Burton