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Tennis: A Great School of Photography

Tennis: A Great School of Photography

Former head of photography at the newspaper L’Équipe, now a gallery owner specializing in sport photography, Jean-Denis Walter serves up a new regular column at Blind with a first installment devoted to tennis photography.

John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors after a game in the Wimbledon semi-finals which saw Connors win, June 30, 1977 © Gerry Granham

The advent of photographers specializing in tennis dates back to the dawn of the Open Era, in 1968, when professionals were first given the opportunity to test their skills against amateur players at Grand Slam tournaments. And even more so, to the emergence of star players, such as Swede Björn Borg, who made it possible for a professional photographer to make a living by focusing exclusively on sport events all year round. Such photographers were in high demand, and not just in Sweden.

British newspapers had fits of hysteria around the time of Wimbledon, and we will recall the “Borgmania” raging during the five victorious rounds at Roland Garros. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe came next, and in France, Yannick Noah’s victory brought new energy into the game. The interest in tennis and in the production of photography fueled this passion. Gerry Cranham, one of the first great sports photographers in history, nicknamed “The Pioneer” by the new wave, closely followed this phenomenon.

Young fans await the arrival of Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon. It is the beginning of the “Borgmania” which will sweep over Europe. July 1, 1973 © Gerry Granham 

In the early days, the cohort was always the same: the big news agencies, AP, AFP, Reuters, plus specialists from tennis magazines around the world. Others showed up here and there. The regulars met in London, Melbourne, or wherever, and bonded over their daily routine, forming a family despite the competition. In France, for example, Serge Philippot of Tennis Magazine and Jean-Marc Pochat of Tennis de France were (and are) fast friends, even as their respective publications were going for the throat.

At the time of the 1983 Roland Garros Final (Noah vs. Wilander) Serge Philippot knew right where to be: “At the end of the set, and maybe of the match, I was at the bottom of the stairs leading to the players’ boxes, not far from the Noah family.” He knew that Yannick would inevitably come that way and, knowing Zachariah, that anything was possible (Zachariah in fact jumped from the stands onto the open court to join his son). Philippot was one of the few allowed to be there, at their side, like one of the family.

Yannick Noah, winner of Roland Garros, finds his father Zacharie down on the center court © Serge Philippot

The news was constantly abuzz with an ever-greater number of tournaments, attended by a permanent train of followers, including photographers. On a technical level, until the emergence of high-performance autofocus in the 1990s, producing a good, well-framed, sharp image was a difficult task in those days, especially with a telephoto lens. Sports were a great school of photography, because the technique had to be mastered until hitting the bull’s eye and shooting an unforgettable photo came naturally. This is still true, even with the improved technology. A match point is a moment of extreme tension, even for photographers. Either you score a great shot, or you don’t: the players won’t repeat the game just because your framing was off.

They say that if a press photographer is good at sports, he or she can do anything. Good reflexes, unbreakable concentration, ability to track the decisive moment even as things are moving a million miles a minute, and quick grasp of the evolving choreography of a match or a race—are just some of the takeaway lessons.

Bjorn Borg, Wimbledon 1977 © Gerry Granham

In the age of analog photography, the big film manufacturers, like Kodak or Fuji, would set up shop at the big tournaments. They each had a stand where photographers could drop off their film at the end of the match and pick up developed photos the next morning. Kodak even ran a daily shuttle service to Roland Garros, the only place that developed the famous “Kodachrome,” a restrictive film of matchless quality.

At Grand Slam tournaments, tension ran high: photographers darted from one court to the next, wherever things were happening. If you were French, or whatever nationality, you’d better scurry to snap some shots of your compatriots playing one of the day’s matches. There are about twenty courts in the big tournaments, with a match going on in each, at least during the first rounds.

Roger Federer, Australian Open, 2013 © Corinne Dubreuil

But once the films were dropped off, it was time to get together, hit the restaurants, discover the city. Today, with digital technology, things are different: once the last ball is played, photographers have to put in several more hours editing their work and sending their best shots to their newspaper or agency. If all goes well, they can look forward to a dinner by midnight. With a growing number of new photographers, the groups are getting bigger and friendships harder to forge. Relationships with the players have also changed: the latter are sheltered by an army of agents and cut off from the outside.

Even so, the older photographers are ahead of the game, and, far from being a burden, the experience of their years gives them an edge. Having survived extremely tense situations, they find the “money time” of a set relaxing. Plus, the bonds forged with the players in the past have not dissolved: they’re still there. Corinne Dubreuil, a Frenchwoman and a one of the keenest eyes in sports photography today, first met Roger Federer when he was still a pimply youngster, throwing tantrums and breaking his rackets at junior tournaments. These days, he never fails to come and greet her, or at least give her a wave. Corinne Dubreuil is one of the few who can pick up her phone and arrange a shoot with him to fulfill the request of a magazine.

Roger Federer the day after his victory at the Australian Open which marks his twentieth grand slam victory, January 2018 © Corinne Dubreuil 

“I had to do a shoot with him for the cover of the Swiss magazine Illustré,” she recalls. “He kindly asked me to wait a few minutes because he had to make a phone call. A moment of peace and calm. He made the call, the Cup just within reach. His routine. At no time did he show any annoyance with my presence or the fact that I was starting to work.”

After the final which saw Rafael Nadal win for the 7th time at Roland Garros in June 2012. A record. Nadal owns 13 today. © Corinne Dubreuil 

“During the presentation of the trophy,” Corinne Dubreuil went on, “I had been struck by his fingers covered with blisters and wrapped in band-aids. The closeup on the cup and his hands was a way to show the performance but also the suffering of the athlete. One image sums it all up.”

Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2013 © Corinne Dubreuil 

When it comes to tennis photography, and sports photography in general, experience is an irreplaceable asset in reliable performance. You have to have seen all the angles, all the positions, all situations in a specific court in Flushing, at “Wim” or “Roland,” to know where the sun will set and how the light will fall. Anything you don’t need to learn, that you simply know, gives you a considerable advantage.

Sports photography is still a trade where enthusiasm and youthful eagerness are not enough. A prodigy may emerge in the eyes of the world, creating one or a series of sublime images. And yet, reliable performance can only be achieved through practice. There have been daring initiatives, such as a carte blanche given by the French Tennis Federation, several years in a row, to a big name in photography (in another field, like fine art or fashion) to bring in a fresh perspective and produce a book and an exhibition.

Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2015 © Bruno Aveillan

Some of the guest stars were up to the task, like Bruno Aveillan and Marcel Hartmann, who produced worthwhile projects. Bruno Aveillan recalls this long-term assignment, outside his comfort zone: “I was interested in the task, I wanted to offer a more intimate, more introspective look, as a complement to the images that come out year after year.” Marcel Hartmann, in turn, crazy about sports, took great pleasure in immersing himself in the event.

Roland Garros, 2018 © Marcel Hartmann

Others, despite their immense talent, often painted themselves into a corner, unable to get beyond the banal. With its codes and its choreography, tennis is not easy to tame.

By Jean-Denis Walter

Jean-Denis Walter is a journalist, former editor-in-chief of L’Equipe Magazine and former head of photography at the newspaper L’Équipe. He now runs the Jean-Denis Walter Gallery.

To learn more about these and other sport photographs, or buy prints, visit the gallery website:

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