In 1889, the Exposition Universelle, the World’s Fair, opened in Paris. Among the technological and artistic marvels displayed by the host country was the Eiffel Tower, its gleaming iron girders not yet oxidized by the elements. France also showcased its great artists, awarding place of prominence to impressionist masters such as Claude Monet.
Excluded from the exhibition were Paul Gauguin and fellow renegades who rejected the indistinct, evocative brush strokes of impressionism for what would come to be known the Symbolist style: bold colors, strong lines, and exaggerated proportions. Just beyond the fairgrounds, in the Cafe des Arts, Gauguin and his acolytes mounted their own show. Guerilla-style, they distributed flyers at the World’s Fair, attracting a parade of spectators and announcing the birth of a new movement in modern art. The Symbolist style would reach its apogee a few years later in Gauguin’s iconic paintings of Tahiti and its people.
This disquisition comes courtesy of my recent visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is staging Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889. What does it have to do with tennis?
The exhibit got me thinking about players whose game has marked a radical break with the conventions of the past. Among the players I’ve watched, John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal are the Gauguins of tennis. Oddly enough, like Gauguin, both of these tennis greats announced their arrival in Paris, just a few miles southeast of the Cafe des Arts, on the crushed red-brick courts of Roland Garros.
McEnroe’s compact strokes, whispering footwork, and cubist compression of space and time bore almost no resemblance to the games of players who came before. As I watch old tape, I see him hit a strange, flat-looking forehand. He doesn’t seem to turn to the side, or rely much on his legs. The shot is pure arm. I blink and he’s suddenly at the net, carving a drop-volley winner. Where did this game come from?
In 1977, as high school senior, McEnroe battled through the qualifying tournament to the second round of Roland Garros. He also won the mixed-doubles title with Mary Carillo. About a month later, he’d get to the Wimbledon semifinals, losing in four sets to Jimmy Connors. His game was difficult, maybe impossible, to emulate, but it expanded our conception of what greatness on the tennis court could look like.
In the contemporary game, Rafael Nadal is the obvious heir to Gauguin. The violently vertical swing path of his forehand and his ability to bend his explosive groundstrokes into impossible angles make Nadal seem as if he’s playing a different sport from his competitors, albeit one that includes a ball and a racket. He was already a rising star in 2005, when he played his first French Open, but it was in Paris that he declared himself a potential all-time great. At age 19, he took out Roger Federer in the semifinals and then Mariano Puerta in the final to claim his first Grand Slam title.
Critics contend that his unorthodox and physically punishing style will cut his career short, a question examined at length in this The New York Times Magazine cover story. It may. Gauguin died young. At age 54, he died of syphilis in Tahiti, impoverished and alone. Let’s hope a better fate awaits Nadal.