Social Exclusion in British Tennis

So we’ve got a new Wimbledon Champion in waiting in the form of Emma Radacanu – but don’t get too excited, she doesn’t break the trend of the English Middle Class Norm. .

For a start, Radacanu grew up and started playing tennis in Canada, where social class is much less entrenched, and in any case her mother (Chinese) and farther (Romanian), neither of whom are from Britain originally, and both of whom work in Finance, are firmly part of the global middle class, who just happen to be resident in Britain ATM.

So she just carries on the middle-class tradition in British Tennis…. all the way back as far as I can remember until Tim Henman who was quintissentially middle class – home counties, dad a solicitor, privately educated, own tennis court in his back garden.

No, it seems that elite tennis just isn’t for the working classes.

There’s an interesting study from 2008 that explored why this is: Social Exclusion in British Tennis: A History of Privilege and Prejudice.

It explores the history using a literature review and ethnography in one local tennis club, and it’s the later I find the most interesting.

The author found that members of the club would enforce a set of social norms beyond playing the game that worked to exclude non established members – for example it was frowned upon to not have a drink after a game, but in the bar established members rarely spoke to newer members.

Appropriate etiquette was also a big deal, meaning appropriate middle class norms of behaviour.

It’s noted that the grass courts were kept open for any member and their children to be able to play on during the summer, but these were heavily policed by senior middle class women, and children had the lowest status in the club, they were hardly encouraged to play.

The ethnography doesn’t extend to professional tennis, which may well be class-neutral, but the point is, tennis clubs are one of the few means whereby people without their own tennis courts at home are going to be able to get into tennis, and this local tennis club blocked ordinary children from being able to do this.

The primary function of this club seemed to be for middle class women to exercise their power and status over others, through ignoring and excluding those they deemed to be inferior, which was pretty much anyone not like them.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is quite useful for illustrating aspects of cultural capital theory and yet another reminder of how social class permeates so many aspects of British life.

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