The dramatic possibilities of tennis are both enormous and obvious, as any Alfred Hitchcock admirer is well aware. One of Hitchcock's best-known scenes occurs in Strangers on a Train, when Farley Granger plays a tense match in which he must race against the clock. That sequence was filmed nearly three decades ago, but it has yet to be surpassed. There have been a number of tennis novels written in recent years—and more, according to the publishers' catalogs, are in sight—but they have been diverting at best and hackneyed at worst.
Two of the latest contributions to the genre are cases in point: Sudden Death, by Peter Brennan (Rawson, $9.95), and Breakpoint, by William Brinkley (Morrow, $9.95). The books, both of them thrillers, are fun: they involve some interesting characters; they display an impressive inside knowledge of big-time tennis; and they get you pretty excited about the climactic big match. But they are also yawningly predictable in both outcome and construction.
Sudden Death has to do with an aging, leonine champion who wants one final victory over a cold-blooded young challenger. Breakpoint has to do with an aging, leonine champion who trains his son to defeat the cold-blooded younger challenger who took away his throne. Both aging, leonine champions strikingly resemble Pancho Gonzales; both upstart challengers seem to owe considerable debts to Jimmy Connors. The roman à clef is alive and well in Forest Hills, er, Flushing Meadow.
If you would prefer to do your summer reading elsewhere, here's a quick summary of the basic tennis novel, in case the subject comes up between sets. An old vet is pitted against a young Turk. Much time is spent on the practice court, hitting interminable backhands and volleys. Offcourt there is much sex. and a lot of it is kinky. Revenge is the dominant motive. Elaborate psyching goes on, along with subtle and not-so-subtle dirty tricks. And everything leads to center court, match point.
Getting down to specifics, each of these novels has its merits. Sudden Death is genuinely gripping, and its aging, leonine hero turns out to be a more complex personality than you might expect. Breakpoint in its best-moments is really quite funny, and tennis insiders will enjoy some of its private jokes. But when you get down to the last lob, both novels are straight out of a new formula that's already old.