If you think tennis today is just too darn fast, if you mourn the wooden racquet, and if you think that the sport has just gone downhill since the days of Bill Tilden, you have a haven at the Open this year.
Guernsey’s, an auction house on East 73rd Street, is holding a preview exhibition of an auction of tennis memorabilia which will be held on the Open’s second weekend. It’s the first major vintage tennis auction ever in the U.S. (there are periodic, rinky-dink affairs in Britain), and there are just under five hundred lots dating from the sixteenth century to the present.
Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s, took us through the exhibition. “I’m particularly proud of everything here,” he said, gesturing to one of the vitrines in front, “that was just consigned two days ago from the estate of Althea Gibson. I can personally attest that every time you saw her she was wearing this jacket”–a slim, tailored white blazer–“up to the day she died.” The blazer, which was given to Gibson for her partcipation in the pre-Davis Wightman Cup, is lot 402F, and Guernsey’s predicts it will go for $10-15,000.
That’s one of the more expensive offerings, but it doesn’t come close to lot 125, one of the very few stained glass windows with a tennis motif ($70-80,000) or lot 125A, “The Two Rarest Books on Tennis: Scaino and Sambucas,” which is estimated to go for sixty or seventy thousand. Scaino’s volume, from 1555, contains the earliest known reference to the game of tennis. “There are eleven known copies,” Ettinger said. “Two are in the Vatican, two are here.” Bargain shoppers will have to settle for a Tennis-Playing Boy Inkwell, c. 1910 (lot 208, $150-200).
There are several display cases full of Bill Tilden memorabilia. Ettinger was diplomatic about Tilden’s mixed legacy: “In his day [he] was to tennis what Roger Federer is today. Beyond that he had his issues. After his tennis days he became sort of a controversial figure. Very bigger than life, very Hollywood-esque. A good-looking man–there’s his picture, here’s his sweater.” We had come to a very chic white cableknit V-neck sweater. A moody painting of Tilden stared from the corner.
The endless cases full of very small, very old trophies get a little oppressive, but Ettinger was upbeat and full of jokes. “You know, this display of Davis racquets is not all that big a deal,” he said of some wooden racquets on the front table. “We put it here because it’s good-looking. At least five hundred people come here and say, ‘This is the racquet I played with!’ I’ve become accustomed to saying, If as many people actually had these racquets as say they did, the company’d still be in business!”
People walked around dreamily past John McEnroe’s Davis Cup jacket and a complete collection of tennis-star Wheaties boxes. “How many of us can actually go to Wimbledon and win a trophy?” Ettinger asked. “If youre not one of those lucky few, you can come here and buy one.”