‘Levels Of The Game’: Looking At Human Behavior Through Tennis

‘Levels of the Game’ by John McPhee

International Blog – Michael Dickens 

With another tennis season finished and the decade almost complete, I’ve been enjoying a brief, holiday respite from the Centre Courts of the world by reading a book I’ve been wanting to re-visit for a long time, Levels of the Game by John McPhee. Published in 1969, contents of the book originally appeared as an essay in The New Yorker magazine. Levels of the Game has been a part of my personal library for many years – and it’s arguably the best book ever written about tennis.

Yet, Levels of the Game isn’t really as much a book about tennis as it is a battle of wills and ideals between two very different American gentlemen – and what each symbolizes – in a sport that was just opening itself to a brand new Open era in 1968.

On one side of the net on the outdoor grass courts at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, then the home of the US Open, is Clark Graebner. He’s 25 years-old, rich, white, conservative. On the other side opposite him is Arthur Ashe Jr., also 25, striving middle class, black and open to new ideas. There is a sense of tension between these two talented individuals that goes far beyond the fact that both are college-educated athletes and competitors – Graebner, conservative scion and only-son of a dentist who matriculated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Ashe, a liberal who grew up in Richmond, Va., then migrated west and graduated from UCLA in Los Angeles, Calif. Despite being rivals, they are also friends – even U.S. Davis Cup teammates.

Over the course of this brilliant 150-page narrative, from first ball to last ball during an epic semifinal-round match at the 1968 US Open, the Princeton and Cambridge-educated McPhee develops a sense of tension between Graebner and Ashe on the court. He goes inside the mind and game of these two great players. Through a stroke-by-stroke description of this singular match, McPhee examines their socio-economic backgrounds and attitudes – touching on both race and politics – which molds each player, mentally and physically.

Here’s how Graebner describes his style of play with Ashe’s, filled with both racial and political undercurrents that prevailed at the time:

“I’ve never been a flashy stylist, like Arthur. I’m a fundamentalist. Arthur is a bachelor. I am married and conservative. I’m interested in business, in the market, in children’s clothes. It affects the way you play the game. He’s not a steady player. He’s a wrists slapped. Sometimes he doesn’t even know where the ball is going. He’s carefree, lackadaisical, forgetful. … Negroes are getting more confidence. They are asking for more and more, and they are getting more and more. They are looser. They’re liberal. In a way, ‘liberal’ is a synonym for ‘loose.’ And that’s exactly the way Arthur plays.”

And in contrast, here’s how Ashe analyzes Graebner:

“There is not much variety in Clark’s game. It is steady, accurate, and conservative. He makes few errors. He plays still, compact, Republican tennis. He’s a damned smart player, a good thinker, but not a limber and flexible thinker. His game is predictable, but he has a sounder volley than I have, and a better forehand – more touch, more power. His forehand is a hell of a weapon. His moves are mediocre. His backhand is under spin, which means he can’t hit it hard. He just can’t hit a heavily top-spun backhand. He hasn’t much flair or finesse, except in the lob. He has the best lob of any of the Americans. He’s solid and consistent. He tries to let you beat yourself.”

One reviewer described McPhee’s approach as “a highly original way of looking at human behavior.” After all, as the author notes, “When physical assets are about equal, psychology is paramount to any game.”

Consider the attention to detail McPhee provides readers from the very beginning of Levels of the Game:

“Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air. The toss is high and forward. If the ball were allowed to drop, it would, in Ashe’s words, ‘make a parabola and drop to the grass three feet in front of the baseline.’ He has practiced tossing a tennis ball just so thousands of times. But he is going to hit this one. His feet draw together. His body straightens and tilts forward far beyond the point of balance. He is falling. The force of gravity and a muscular momentum from legs to arm compound as he whips his racquet up and over the ball. He weighs a hundred and fifty-five pounds; he is six feet tall, and right-handed. His build is barely full enough not to be describable as frail, but his coördination is so extraordinary that the ball comes off his racquet at furious speed. With a step forward that stops his fall, he moves to follow.

“On the other side of the net, the serve hits the grass and, taking off in a fast skid, is intercepted by the backhand of Clark Graebner. Graebner has a plan for this match. He does not intend to ‘hit out’ much. Even if he sees the moon, he may decide not to shoot it. He will, in his words, ‘play the ball in the court and make Arthur play it, because Arthur blows his percentages by always trying a difficult or acute shot. Arthur sometimes tends to miss easy shots more often than he makes hard shots. The only way to get his confidence down is to get every shot into the court and let him make mistakes.’ Graebner, standing straight up, pulls his racquet across and then away from the ball as if he had touch something hot, and with this gesture he blocks back Ashe’s serve.”

Later in the book, McPhee delves inside the mind of each player with great insight:

“Graebner happens to be as powerful as anyone who plays tennis. He is six feet two inches tall; he weighs a hundred and seventy-five pounds. The firmly structured muscles of his legs stand out in symmetrical perfection. His frame is large, but his reactions are instant and there is nothing sluggish about him. He is right-handed, and his right forearm is more than a foot in circumference. His game is built on power. His backswing is short, his strokes are compact; nonetheless, the result is explosive. There have to be exceptions to any general strategy. Surely this particular shot is a setup, a sitter, hanging there soft and helpless in the air. With a vicious backhand drive, Graebner tries to blow the ball crosscourt, past Ashe. But it does into the net. Fifteen-love.

“Graebner is nervous. He looks down at his feet somberly. This is Forest Hills, and this is one of the semifinal matches in the first United States Open Championships. Graebner and Ashe are both Americans. The other semifinalists are a Dutchman and an Australian. It has been thirteen years since an American won the men’s singles final at Forest Hills, and this match will determine whether Ashe or Graebner is to have a chance to be the first American since Tony Trabert to win it all. Ashe and Graebner are still amateurs, and it was imagined that in this tournament, playing against professionals ,they wouldn’t have much of a chance. But they are here, close to the finish, playing each other. For Graebner to look across the net and see Ashe – and the reverse – is not in its unusual. They were both born in 1943, they have known each other since they were thirteen, and they have played tournaments and exhibitions and have practiced together in so many countries and seasons that details blur. They are members of the United States Davis Cup Team and, as such, travel together throughout the year, playing for the United States – and also entering general tournaments less as individuals than en bloc, with the team.

“A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too. A tight, close match unmarried by error and representative of each player’s game at its highest level will be primarily a psychological struggle, particularly when the players are so familiar with each other that there can be no technical surprises There is nothing about Ashe’s game that Graebner does not know, and Ashe says that he knows Graebner’s game ‘like a favorite tune.’ Ashe feels that Graebner. Plays the way he does because he is a middle-class white conservative. Graebner feels that Ashe plays the way he does because he is black. Ashe, at this moment, is nervous. He is famous for what journalists have called his ‘majestic cool,’ his ‘towering, calm,’ his ‘icy elegance.’ But he is scared stiff, and other tennis players who know him well can see this, because it is literally true. His legs are stiff. Now, like a mechanical soldier, he walks into position to serve again. He lifts the ball, and hits it down the middle.

“Ashe’s principal problem in tennis has been consistency. He has brilliance to squander, but steadiness has not been characteristic of him. He shows this, woodenly hitting three volleys into the net in this first game, letting Graebner almost break him, then shooting his way out of trouble with two serves hit so hard that Graebner cannot touch them. Ashe wins the first game. Graebner shrugs and tells himself, ‘He really snuck out of that one.’”

In a 2014 review of Levels of the Game for the London Guardian, William Fiennes suggests that McPhee’s use of tenses are a “subtle source of power.” He notes how the author uses past tense “for history and backstory, present tense for the match and for the comments and reactions of those watching it.”

For instance: “When, after an account of (Robert) Johnson’s first meeting with Ashe (‘he wondered if the child had been a victim of rickets, he was so bony and frail’), McPhee cuts back to the semifinal at Forest Hills, the reversion to the present tense is an electric quickening. Sometimes these transitions are bold and imaginative, as when McPhee shows us two of Johnson’s trophy-winning students watching television, and the match they’re watching is Ashe vs. Graebner at Forest Hills, and suddenly we’re back in the game, spirited via a wormhole, Graebner serving an ace that splits the court.”

Another example: “Both Ashe and Graebner have a great deal of finesse in reserve behind their uncomplicated power, but it surfaces once or twice a game rather than once or twice a point. Ashe is a master of drop shots, of drop half volleys, of miscellaneous dinks and chips. He is, in the idiom of tennis, very tough at cat-and-mouse – the texture of the game in which both players, near the net, exchange light, floppy shots, acutely angled and designed for inaccessibility. Graebner is a deft volleyer, reacting quickly and dangerously at the net, but in general – although the two players technically have the same sort of game – Graebner does not have the variety of shots or the versatility that Ashe has. Ashe says that Graebner ‘could use a little more junk in his game.’”

Throughout this fun-to-read book, it becomes apparent how freely and honestly Ashe and Graebner discuss race and personal politics – and the changing landscape of the tennis world. We find out what makes each succeed – on and off the court – and looking back, the book remains a great historical document. Remember, the Open Era of professional tennis was just starting to take shape and some of the greats of the game that we feel deep admiration for today, like Rod Laver, were still playing. Also, in terms of U.S. history, this match took place in the same year as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the United States was in the height of fighting the Vietnam War. Worth noting is Ashe was a second lieutenant stationed at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., when he won the 1968 US Open.

Of many things I’ve come to appreciate from reading Levels of the Game is how much McPhee admires both Ashe and Graebner – and throughout, he maintains a sense of impartiality. However, it’s apparent that McPhee assumes that the reader will side with Ashe more than Graebner – and, it’s Ashe who not only wins the match – 4-6, 8-6, 7-5, 6-2 – but also goes on to win the 1968 US Open, defeating Tom Okker of the Netherlands, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in the championship final. Still an amateur and unable to accept the $14,000 first-prize money awarded to the winner, it was Ashe’s first career Grand Slam singles title and his only US Open singles championship. He became the first African-American man to win the US Open.

Looking back at this clash of conservative values versus liberal ideals, one of the primary take aways after re-reading McPhee’s Levels of the Game is simple: You are the way you play.