Flair Play

THERE’S ONE GOOD FOLDER on my computer desktop. “Images,” its title reads, opaquely, enticingly. Inside, one can find a curated compendium of visual curios, pop-culture bric-a-brac, and internet detritus: a mud-speckled Sidney Poitier adjusting his amber motocross goggles in a still from 1973’s A Warm December; an uncanny stock image of a smiling, multiracial group of men and women standing in V-formation against an antiseptic white backdrop. A recent favorite is a Walter Iooss Jr. photograph of former Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star outfielder Dave Parker smoking a cigarette in the dugout during a 1980 spring-training game. For the sports-loving aesthete, it’s a decadent image: there’s the garish pop of the Pirates’ late-’70s, early-’80s banana-yellow uniforms, the players’ iconic pillbox hats with horizontal striping and personalized placement of their “Stargell Stars,” and, of course, Parker himself—the picture of bicentennial-era chic. There’s an emphatic nonchalance coded in the leisurely toke, emitted from his sideward glance, refracted in that single diamond stud earring. In short, he’s the coolest guy you’ve ever seen.

If I could, I’d put the entirety of William Klein’s stunning 1982 documentary The French in my “images” folder. It’s a paean to the rakish charm that suffused tennis’s “Golden Age,” and a mesmerizing emission from a more earthbound era of pro sports. Commissioned by the French Tennis Federation to capture the eighty-fifth edition of the Roland-Garros championship, the film—like the photo of Parker—distills a quality of professional sports and the athletes that play them that has gone sorrily in decline in recent years: an effortless and unvarnished poise. 

A still from William Klein's The French, 1982. Courtesy Metrograph Pictures.
A still from William Klein's The French, 1982. Courtesy Metrograph Pictures.

Klein’s feat is due in no small part to the intimate access he was afforded by the federation president Philippe Chatrier. His crew followed the athletes with an unflinching (and occasionally unforgiving) gaze throughout the tournament’s two-week slog. And for the most part, the players seem unperturbed by the cameras. Klein hovers around quiet, pedestrian moments: a sweat-soaked brow mopped on the sleeve of an Ellesse T-shirt, a skirt dutifully ironed before a big match, a sip of cola relished after a hard-fought set. The best and brightest of the 1981 tennis world seem strangely normal—common, even. In one scene, Yannick Noah, the handsome twenty-one-year-old French hopeful, admits to having been “at the disco” until 1:30 AM the night before his fourth-round match with Argentine former champion Guillermo Vilas. Even Björn Borg—the era’s leading man, the tournament favorite, and the most prototypically modern player, with his machine-like consistency and myriad of corporate sponsorships—feels more terrestrial than today’s superstars. At the very least, I’ve never seen Novak Djokovic in a pair of Levi’s.

Before advanced equipment, esoteric nutrition regimens, and performance-enhancing drugs created the superathlete cyborgs who now dominate the top rungs of elite sports, there was Ilie Năstase. The garrulous, floppy-haired veteran is one of the horde of competitors whose experience at the tournament Klein tracks with rapt attention. The thirty-four-year-old Romanian is a debonair trickster—Năstase cracks jokes with the umpire following a controversial call in a match with Eliot Teltscher, plays the clown for Chris Evert and Virginia Ruzici in the athletes’ clubhouse, enjoys a smoke with his bodyguard “Bambino.” He looks the part—that is, if the part were for a suave proprietor of a nightclub on the French Riviera and not that of a Grand Slam champion and former world number one. 

With a sharp and often humorous eye, Klein also captures the profoundly visceral experience of the spectator. On day seven, a grounds official struggles to hold back the crush of fans clamoring to get through a gate. Nearby, a wooden box overflows with paper ticket stubs. Most striking to this modern fan is not the absence of QR codes, metal detectors, and stringent security protocol, but the near-impossible-to-imagine post-match rush, when attendees were allowed to swarm the court within a one-Bambino radius of their favorite stars.

Klein is best known for being one of a handful of artists who pioneered what is now referred to as “street photography.” In the 1950s and ’60s, his work frequently appeared in Vogue. His seminal monograph Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels is filled with fleeting city encounters and interstitial moments. The figures that dominate his frames are frequently in motion, a blur darting up an avenue or flitting through a dark nightclub. As a sports documentarian, Klein takes a similar approach: The French is filled with swinging limbs, bouncing hair, and taut muscles. With his long, voyeuristic closeups and playfully dialectical editing, Klein creates dramatic tension without relying on some of sports films’ most common devices, namely narration. At one point, Ruzici appeals wordlessly to her coach’s box after getting her serve broken in the first set of a quarterfinal match against Evert, her friend and perpetual thwart. Klein’s lingering shot on Ruzici’s utterly depleted face communicates more about the dynamic between the two athletes, the immense pressure they subject themselves to, and the atmosphere of the tournament than any voice-over could.

Crucially, Klein’s lens also loiters where the fans cannot. His camera tracks bare thighs into locker rooms and onto massage tables. It’s there when head umpire Jacques Dorfman conducts the tournament draw, and it’s trained on Yannick Noah’s ailing right ankle as a physical trainer assesses its viability. Klein has a brutalist bend. He’s interested in beauty, of course, but he also fixates on the structural underpinnings of the world he’s observing. In Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (1977), his other sports documentary, Klein memorably stages a somewhat menacing tableau of Ali’s early financial backers—a group of white businessmen known as “the Louisville syndicate”—and has them introduce themselves one by one. In The French, we watch John McEnroe awkwardly accept a new camera as champagne flows at a soiree hosted by Canon, a tournament sponsor. “We players do appreciate the gifts that we get,” the baby-faced American stammers, “and, uh, we hope we get a lot more in the future, too.” In another director’s hands, these scenes might seem to indict money’s corrupting influence on sport, but in Klein’s, they buzz with an anthropological intrigue. “Why have so many labored to produce this elaborate event around a simple game?” he seems to ask. “And why does it look so good?” 

Jordan Coley is a journalist and screenwriter whose work has appeared in GQ, The Nation, and the New Yorker