08 Oct Giorgio Falco: Grip
As a child, my favourite tennis player was Vitas Gerulaitis. An American with Lithuanian roots, his career during the Seventies brought him up against names like Borg, McEnroe and Connors. He was by no means a star player like the others, he didn’t have a killer stroke but he was a good all-rounder and quick at side and forward dashes. So he won a good number of tournaments, including the 1977 Australia Open. But there was another reason I dreamt of being Vitas Gerulaitis, a certain obsessive gesture that made him quite unique. Every two games, during the changeover, he would take a seat and quickly sip some water; sometimes he wouldn’t even drink but grip the racquet in his hands and start to peel back the grip, the adhesive tape wrapped around the handle. Totally absorbed in this rite, Vitas Gerulaitis would unroll it all; at this point the handle bears no resemblance to what we are used to, yet it still maintained something of what it had been a few moments beforehand, a strange being skinned by the butcher. Then Vitas Gerulaitis would put on a new grip. I loved it when the TV director decided to ignore the public in the stands – not yet an integral part of the spectacle – and focus on the image of the tennis player intent on changing his grip. This was before the days of adverts during the changeover, in Italy at least, so I was able to enjoy Vitas Gerulaitis’s obsessive action from start to finish. Grip, as well as handhold, also means competence, supremacy and control. But it also means stitch and pain. Vitas Gerulaitis used to bring the racquet to his mouth and, squinting at it, use his teeth to rip the grip from the roll and fasten it round the handle.
This was happening in the late Seventies in Rome, Paris, London and New York, but considering the attention the tennis player devoted to his task, it felt like an object belonging to all of humanity, taken out of context, out of time, in the same way that as kids we could perch on a step for hours with a twig in hand. And in that absolute present, we were sleepy Assyrians, Etruscans on lunch break, euphoric Samnites celebrating victory over the Romans, Indians intent on sharpening arrows; we were every history in the world, and only an external intervention – our parents’ calling – could bring us back to our daily chores, to that timeline measured with the usual parameters. The invigilating referee would say time into the microphone, urging the players back to the game and bringing the changing of the grip back into the moment. Vitas Gerulaitis would get up, walk towards the back line and await his turn to serve or receive. His habit revealed something to us, an attempt at vital reflection, a systematic process of archiving, awareness of space and time, and what it is possible to do within these, even the illusion of miniscule corrections. It was a type of qualitative assessment of the recently completed bouts, to separate them from quantity, the score and who was out in front; it was not a propitiatory rite for the imminent game nor a simple forecast, but an attempt to see, codifying his next moves not so much in the hope of winning points but, through the icon of that peeled and rewrapped grip, the way in which the material is seen in the image. What really seemed to count was not points given or taken, but the concatenation with which each bout was connected to the next, that relationship, that continuous connection with which we consider the present.
“Utensils are transformations of movement,” wrote Simone Weil, and so was the emphasis Vitas Gerulaitis placed on his grip. Through that action, the tennis player lived the next game, characterized by a chaos – uneven bounces, gusts of wind, sun glare, unexpected changes in light, a strong opponent, personal limits – that Vitas Gerulaitis attempted to decipher when all seemed calm, a little like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in their two famous photographs: portrait puzzles to put back together, which reveal something about who we are in that passage from fragmented to recomposed form.
“I live from what you do not know about me” said Peter Handke. To paraphrase Handke, we might say that, like all athletes ready to challenge their physical and mental limits, within the confines of their own body, Vitas Gerulaitis lived from what he still did not know about himself, the way in which the fleeing gods acted in Kairos. He died at forty years of age, in a room in New York; the cause of death was the fumes from a small stove. That is what official records say, the narrative that tries to condense what happened into one day, as if it were caused by something specific and absolute, as if there truly existed the decisive moment.
But this reading of Vitas Gerulaitis’s obsession might still be considered only partial. Perhaps the tennis player was suggesting something even more to us. It is not a question of the strings or the head of the racquet, nor is it the grip or the shaft or even the human hand plummeting through space into an intermediate space. It is form that is neither past nor future, a hiss that is deeper even than the transience of the present, the awareness of pain caused by the consumption of the invisible, of what we live: imprisoned within the heart of a tennis ball is the atom, a large, empty volume, distant and indifferent to us and itself, the universe.