Dirt: Is tennis funny?

An archival video + a sports hypothesis

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Daisy Alioto on the other beautiful game.

It should have been the funniest tennis match of all time: In 1937 Charlie Chaplin and Fred Perry faced off against Groucho Marx and Ellsworth Vines at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. “Marx turned up to this game with 12 rackets and a large suitcase, much to the curiosity of Chaplin. After losing the first two games, he retrieved his suitcase and began setting out a picnic in the middle of the court,” according to The Guardian.

Check it out:

That’s all well and good, but I don’t know how a satire of tennis could be funnier than tennis itself, a sport in which grunts and tantrums are inevitable — endured by a silent crowd. (The exact same dynamic as your most mediocre sexual experience, but as a rule.) There is an entire wikipedia page devoted to grunting in tennis, highlights of which include:

  • Michelle Larcher de Brito being booed off the court of the 2009 French Open after her opponent accused her of “shrieking”

  • Michelle Larcher de Brito defending herself with a confident, "If people don't like my grunting, they can always leave"

  • Martina Navratilova holding Roger Federer up as the pinnacle non-grunter, "Roger Federer doesn't make a noise when he hits the ball — go and listen" (I WILL) 

  • Conspiratorial whispers that pro tennis trainer Nick Bollettieri (who has trained Maria Sharapova, Andrew Agassi, and Venus and Serena Williams sisters) “has been deliberately teaching grunting as a novel tactic in order to give his latest generation of students an edge in competitive play”

I just finished reading String Theory, a collection of tennis writing by David Foster Wallace. The writer takes tennis seriously as an avatar of himself. “Midwest junior tennis was also my initiation into true adult sadness,” he writes in Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley. Knowing how expansive his adult sadness truly was, I wonder whether David Foster Wallace saw the humor in tennis at all. But then he wrote lines like, “Joyce’s balls actually look more like Jimmy Connors’ balls than like Agassi’s.” And it’s like, he has to know, he HAS to. 1

Some things are just funniest when presented unironically: like infrastructure. If there was any doubt left after Boaty McBoatface and Infrastructure Week, the fate of the Evergreen and the unfettered glee with which it was received proved once and for all that infrastructure is the body humor of the political world. What could be funnier than human beings getting in our little vehicles and vessels to circle the world (71% water!) like fresh turds in a toilet bowl? 

For those of you keeping track, that means tennis is the infrastructure of the sports world. “I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is,” writes David Foster Wallace, “It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that strange mix of caution and abandon we call courage.”

I feel the same way about soccer, but I can still appreciate the absolute comedy of a dive. (Although you should read Alejandro Chacoff in defense of the dive.) I just think if your sport calls zero “love” and is predominantly known for white clothes and swamp ass, you should admit it. It doesn’t take a Marx brother to underscore that. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: Tennis is funny.


Tennis balls are funnier than other types of sports balls because they are fuzzy. When I was a freshman in high school we had an unpopular vice principal named LaBreck and one day someone spray painted “LaBreck sucks balls” on the front of the school, complete with a drawing of two hairy testicles. It was on the side of the school where the buses pulled up and for the rest of the day, students who had been greeted by the graffiti walked around with a faraway grin on their faces. Even the teachers seemed to be in a jovial mood. I guarantee I could have gone up to any of the people at my 10 year high school reunion and whispered “LaBreck sucks balls” and they would have been instantly transported.