Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Paperback, 256 pages
Publisher: Harvill Secker (April 2016)
Languages: English, Spanish
Selected by Barbara Epler
“I love a book that ponders whether ‘there was a Wimbledon of dead humanists’ and goes from there to engage Galileo, Mary Magdalene, various popes, the Aztec emperor and Hernán Cortés in a clash of empires and ideas, with, as its centrepiece, a 16th-century tennis match between Italian painter Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball made from the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn. Top that.” —Barbara Epler
The oldest written record of the word tennis makes no mention of athletic shoes; rather, it refers solely to the sport from which they take their name, a sport that – along with fencing, its near kin – was one of the first to require a special kind of footwear.
In 1451, Edmund Lacey, Bishop of Exeter, defined the game with the same suppressed rage with which my mother referred to the falling-apart Converse I wore as a kid: ad ludum pile vulgariter nuncupatum Tenys. In Lacey’s edict, the word tenys – in the vernacular – is linked to phrases with the acid whiof court cases: prophanis colloquiis et iuramentis, vanis et sepissime periuriis illicitis, sepius rixis.
At the collegiate church of Ottery St Mary, under Lacey’s rule, a group of novices had been using the roofed gallery of the cloister to play matches against townies. In those days, tennis was much rougher and noisier than it is today: some were attackers, others defenders, there were no nets or lines, and points were won tooth and nail, by slamming the ball into an opening called a dedans. Since it was a sport invented by Mediterranean monks, it had redemptive overtones: angels on one side, demons on the other. It was a matter of between good and evil, scheming to get into heaven, Lucifer’s messengers waylaying it. The soul rent asunder, just like my tennis shoes.
The prickly Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a great lover of the game, spent his last years in exile for having run an opponent through with his sword on a tennis court. Today, the Roman street where the crime was committed is called Via di Pallacorda – “street of the ball and net” – in memory of the incident. Caravaggio was sentenced to death by beheading in Rome and spent years living as a fugitive, from Naples to Sicily to the island of Malta. Between commissions, he painted terrifying scenes of beheadings in which he served as his own model for the severed heads. He sent the paintings to the pope or his agents as symbolic tribute, in the hope of being pardoned. At the age of 38, Caravaggio was at last granted a reprieve and he was on his way back to Rome when he was stabbed on the Tuscan beach of Porto Ercole, by an assassin sent by the Knights of Malta. Though he was a master of the sword and dagger, just as he was of the brush and racket, syphilitic delirium and lead poisoning1 left him unable to defend himself. Sepius rixis.
A few years ago I attended one of the 300,000 book fairs held every week across the Spanish-speaking world. A local literary critic found me so intolerable that he decided to launch a jeremiad against me. Since he didn’t have the time or energy to read a whole book and take it apart, he wrote on his blog: “How dare he appear in public wearing tennis shoes like that?” Vanis et sepissime periuriis illicitis!
It’s no surprise that anyone possessing a modicum of authority should agitate against tennis, or tennis shoes. I myself often issue complaints, like bad cheques, about my teenage son’s Adidas. We cling to our tennis shoes until wearing them on a rainy day is agony. Anyone in a position of power hates them, impervious as they are to their agendas.
 The real cause of Caravaggio’s death is much debated. Whether he was assassinated on religious grounds or whether he died of syphilis or sunstroke, or any combination of these possibilities, remains unknown.