Can You Capture a Backhand in a Watercolor?

Painter "conjures" historic tennis site with watercolors.

February 10, 2009, 10:52 AM

PARIS, June 6, 2007 — -- In an age of SUVs, he pedals to work on his bicycle.

As millions tap messages on computer keyboards, he communicateswith pencil and brush.

And when television cameras shoot digital images of French Opentennis matches across the globe, he captures his images by hand onpaper.

He is Franck Lehodey, a droll, unassuming artist whose subjectis the 2007 international tennis championships at Roland Garros,one of the shrines of French sport. His assignment is to captureits flavor with a series of watercolor portraits.

Lehodey is following a tradition. Over the years, a smallprocession of artists have accepted commissions to make art atRoland Garros. Three years ago, Joel Blanc, who used pen, ink andoils, drew a series of sketches shown on French television.

Now, like Blanc, Lehodey continues to defy digital technology,but finds himself a captive of it. To publish his sketches, hisworks are being scanned and conveyed digitally to the printers.

A former newspaper reporter and photographer, Lehodey is nostranger to modern publishing. His day job during the tournament isto write headlines for a glossy French tennis magazine printed eachnight during the two weeks of play at Roland Garros.

"I make the titres (titles)," he tells an American reporter.

So, in his head, Lehodey works with words at night and with hishands, he works with watercolors by day.

With many deft strokes, he captures the look and feel of thevast Chartrier tennis stadium built in 1927, its exterior southwall covered with ivy.

Lehodey's eye is on the wide view: the shape and look of thespectator boxes, the slightly stooped posture of a photographer,the reflection of light on the ivy.

Anyone expecting to see the jet-fast action of a tennis strokeor the angry blur of a player disputing a line call won't find themin Lehodey's sketches. There is too little time to compose an actionshot, he complains with a slight smile.

"If you are good," he said, "you can draw someone moving fast.(But) it's very difficult to compete with photography."

This hasn't stopped the artist: "There are many ways ofapproaching tennis," he said, insisting that it is possible to"conjure" it. "It's a special world," he said.

It's a world in which Lehodey finds himself deeply involved.His employer is the French Tennis Federation, which publishesposters, pamphlets, books, and magazines extolling the virtues oftennis to a public that appears wildly interested in the sport andits personalities.

Yannick Noah, one of the country's tennis heroes from the1980s, adorns billboards again as a singing star. He will soon beseen in America in an HBO profile on his son, Joakim Noah, thebasketball star (and a likely first-round NBA recruit) from the University ofFlorida. Meanwhile, their country roots for its current tennisstars each year at the French Open.

In this milieu, Lehodey works as an editor, illustrator, and"concepteur" (one who comes up with concepts) for the FFT. "I am Norman," Lehodey told a curious passerby.

It's an explanation as much as a definition. Lehodey is adescendent of the Normans who conquered Britain ("1066," he grins,reminding his listener of the year they invaded.)

So even though Lehodey lives and works in Paris, he remains aNorman at heart: "Inside my head, I live in Normandy all the time," he said.

Two or three days a week and on holidays (he works part time),Lehodey goes to see his children, Marie and Valentin, who live withtheir mother at Saint Aubin sur Mer, near Calvados, which is morethan 160 miles away.

In a matter of days, he will complete a series of sketches thatembody history as much as sport. The south wall of the stadium(Tribune C, it is called), will be torn down after 80 years to bereplaced with a new structure more congenial to television cameras.

Lehodey's sketches will offer a way of looking back in time ata sight the French associate with their current crop of players aswell as the glory years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, whentheir players captured the Davis Cup from America for the firsttime.

Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of tennis here. Amillion-plus players belong to the French Tennis Federation,enjoying league and tournament play.

Franck Lehodey's sketches are a reminder that the French spiritof art lives in harmony with its love of sport.

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