Soon tennis will start at Wimbledon, rain permitting! The world-famous championships are about to begin in the prosperous, leafy suburb of London. It’s the season of long, languid summer evenings around the midsummer day on the 21 June, the longest day in the northern hemisphere. The thud of a ball on racket strings mingles with the dust and sharp green smell of mown grass.
Towards the end of his life, the Italian poet and novelist, Giorgio Bassani, asked to be taken to watch tennis on the courts outside Rome on the Via Appia. Tennis is at the heart of his only full-length novel, The Garden of the Finzi Contini. It is a book I reread most summers to return imaginatively to Ferrara, a quiet provincial, city laid out on a Roman grid street pattern, with occasional long walls outside town gardens and the alluring sound of a ball on racket floating over them.
Weekend cricket matches with teams kitted out in traditional white shirt and trousers can sometimes still be seen on village greens. A cricket pavilion surveys the pitch, its veranda lounging with deck chairs that spill over onto the grass in front. Peace on a Sunday afternoon of sunshine and buoyant clouds sailing across the skies with the sound of leather on wood, a spatter of applause rewarding a good hit for six, or a bold catch with the fielder falling to the ground, hands uplifted tightly clasping the ball. A blissful pause in the passage of time with the prospect of scones, butter and jam for tea.
Contrast that with the excitement in the garden behind the wall. The rapid ‘plangs’ of a small, softer ball on taut, interlaced strings, and the nonchalance of youth hitting it over a net. The fun shared, the confidences exchanged, secret glances leading beyond the structured game of tennis. Giorgio Bassani as a young man peeping in and yearning to join them on a hot summer day when time seemed to have gathered in on itself.
Recently on a misty afternoon in the Scottish border country, I was invited to walk into a hillside wood.
‘Come over here,’ my companion said, ‘I’ve something to show you.’ We went down a short slope into what I thought was a glade. But it was too rectangular an area. And it was flat. Large stones at one end formed a moss-covered semi-circle. The green of the trees and the short grass absorbed the light and time seemed to pause. Imagine a summer day in the 1930s and a group of young people, dressed in white for a tennis party, gathered on the court with sunlight flickering through the trees on to the green grass. Chatter and scattered laughs mingle in all shades of anticipation and excitement. Two, or four, playing. The plump of a ball on racket. ‘Ooos’ or ‘ahhs’ and a smattering of applause from the observers sitting or reclining on cushions piled up on the raised stone viewing area at one end.
There is magic in this film of imagined memories spooling through my mind. Just as my companion turns to leave, a quick ‘cut’ and the sun shimmers through the mist as the last player runs after the others leaving down a hidden path to their future.