Smell, Memory

Perfumers evoke the elegance of an imagined tennis game, not the stench of a real one.

Chanel N°5. Illustrations by Tamara Shopsin

By Rachel Syme

Racquet and Longreads | January 2018 | 11 minutes (2,800 words)

Our latest feature is a new story by Rachel Syme and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

Tennis, to me, smells like chlorine and white sage and tuna fish. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the courts always wheeze dust when you walk on them and the dry heat shimmers off the net in the middle of summer. Our family belonged to a tennis club, but not the kind with rolling hills and security gates—instead, our courts were somewhat dumpy and gray, down near the university area filled with tattoo parlors and ratty cafés that seemed progressive in the ’90s for their hummus-forward menus. The club was made mostly of cement and gravel and funnel cakes, and its pro shop featured six-packs of tube socks and fresh cylinders of key-lime-colored balls and not much else. It may very well be fancier now, but my family stopped paying dues two decades ago.

We moved to the base of the mountains when I was 13, and my father now plays tennis every day at High Point, a gym filled primarily with active seniors and women doing Zumba. When he does go downtown to play, he meets my brother at one of the college courts near the hospital, where my brother spends most nights sewing throats back together as a resident in facial surgery. My father, who also cuts people open for a living, started playing a lot more tennis when my brother became a doctor; it is how they communicate wordlessly about what bloody traumas they’ve seen during the day. I imagine hitting something really hard back and forth is useful in this regard.

Chloé

I never took tennis lessons when I had the chance; I didn’t have the patience or the aptitude to learn a game that required both coordination and aerobic prowess. I preferred to use my summer hours at the club for the snack bar and for the pool, where I would spend long afternoons diving for rings in the deep end with children I had just met that day, wearing my Coke-bottle prescription goggles around the deck because I was blind without them. Tennis was something that older people did while I was learning to flip-turn, and so to me it had a foreign smell, the smell of something happening across a fence, of a world I had no easy way to enter. I remember going into the pro shop, still shivering from the water, and being struck by the way that the corporate-strength air-conditioning amplified the smell of the Dunlops. It was like being locked in a freezer made of rubber, like being in an airplane seat under a fan that wouldn’t turn off. I felt immediately very small, and very alien, in that space. It was not meant for me; and all I had to do to sense it was sniff the air like a curious coyote. Sometimes odors tell you everything about where you don’t belong.

The only comforting smells that came along with tennis came from my grandparents’ house, and they usually took the form of a tuna sandwich and a giant chilled glass of bitter Crystal Light lemonade. My mother’s parents were textbook fanatics about the sport; they watched hours and hours of matches every day. They had extremely strong opinions about Pete Sampras (always positive; how dare anyone besmirch his name), and they had piles of photo albums filled with snapshots of them playing doubles in the ’60s, when Albuquerque still had only two highways and the court was the fastest way to make married friends across the desert sprawl. My grandparents moved to the Southwest from Manhattan (with a brief stint in Nebraska) in the mid-’50s, and they took up tennis with the zealousness of those brand-new to the West, with its elastic horizons and aggressive sunlight. Tennis always happens in the same-size box, but it tends to feel more expansive when played under uncluttered skies, and my grandparents took to it as a form of communion with the rambling landscape.

But by the time I was born, they were mostly communing with ESPN—marking the years by Grand Slams, munching on whitefish as their jaws clicked in time to the metronome of a good volley. My scent memories of these moments are of armchair mustiness mixed with herbal breezes from the garden, artificial sweeteners and crisp iceberg lettuce, linoleum cleaner and my grandfather’s Bay Rum aftershave. If I made a tennis perfume now, that is what it would try to capture: those long afternoons of boredom in the carpeted den, of feeling languid and hot and completely uninterested in my grandparents’ beloved hobby, even though I now know it contained their story, the big story, the only story that matters. Tennis was, for them, a narrative thread; the genesis of how they met and how they kept going, how they once played with wicker rackets on Coney Island and drove all the way back to the city with the top down, how they carved out a fresh home in an unfamiliar place, how they passed the long hours of a marriage standing next to each other in sweatbands, performing best when they were on the same team, anticipating the moves, lunging for the win.

* * *

Professional perfumers, at least the good ones, tend to be obsessed with the passing of time—why else would you want to try to crush memories into a paste, to keep the lilacs from slipping through your hands? They often create in order to reconstruct something that has been irrevocably misplaced, even if the consumer never knows it; smell a perfume, and you are likely smelling a chemist’s melancholy, grief boiled down. So many people associate the smell of tennis with something they lost—childhood, championships, the relative who taught them how to play—and perfumers are no different. Insomuch as the sport has blossomed into official scents you can buy, a lot of them are touched with a wistful, hazy glow. Some perfumers, like Roja Dove, cannot bring themselves to try to bottle tennis at all.

I asked Dove—a master perfumer in Britain who makes bespoke scents for sultans and commands an entire floor of Harrods and who wears velvet smoking jackets with emerald-encrusted brooches—whether or not he made any perfumes that related to the racquet, and immediately he launched into a lamentation. “Myself and my partner Peter used to play tennis every day when we were living in Cambridge,” he said. “It is the only sport we have ever enjoyed, and it was fortunate that one of the houses we lived in had a court just two minutes’ walk away. We loved it so much that when we moved, we were lucky enough to have a huge garden, so we had a court put in so we could keep playing. Sadly, we lost the habit of it after Peter severely damaged his leg one day, slipping on icy stairs. Neither of us played again, as I didn’t want to remind him of what he could no longer do.”

Professional perfumers, at least the good ones, tend to be obsessed with the passing of time—why else would you want to try to crush memories into a paste, to keep the lilacs from slipping through your hands?

Of course, he said, it is the smells of the sport he misses most, though he refuses to directly re-create them. “One of the things I lament the most is that moment when you pop the lid on a new tin of a set of tennis balls and that smell of fresh rubber hits you,” he said. “That, mingled with the green scents of nature that surrounded us as we played, is a very fond memory and reminds me somewhat of vetiver. What many don’t realize is that when working with vetiver, it has a slight rubber note that is reminiscent of the top of a hot-water bottle with hot water in it. When making a good vetiver, a perfumer will be able to get rid of this note, which I have done in my own Vetiver Parfum Pour Homme, as I cannot abide it.”

He isn’t wrong—Roja’s Vetiver smells like waving wheat and tree bark and a hint of thyme, but never rubber; he has fully excised the hot-water-bottle note from the mix. In the end, none of his scents smell like tennis balls, mostly because Dove makes perfumes that people should want to wear (and spend hundreds of dollars on), and he recoils at the idea of scent as a novelty item. But also because, perhaps, he doesn’t want to be haunted by the empty court in the garden, by spaces marred by injury and disappointment. Some losses are better left outside of the bottle.

* * *

J’Adore by Dior

If there is a perfume that screams tennis in a direct way, it is The Soft Lawn, a 2013 creation by Josh Meyer, the Portland-based, self-taught perfumer behind a line called Imaginary Authors. For his perfumes, Meyer creates backstories inspired by fictions, tonics that smell like people who never lived. Meyer has said, in the past, that he recoils from the term “chemist,” that for him, “the idea of perfume creation is more like painting for me than chemistry.” He is more invested in portraiture than science, in dripping a life through cheesecloth until it ends up in a bottle. That those lives happen to be fabricated is part of the game; fiction is far more florid than reality, and far less likely to contain acrid odors, human odors. Better to stick to figments, where the grass always smells freshly mown.

The Soft Lawn’s brand name refers to the title of an invented novel, written by a make-believe tony writer of a bygone era named Claude LeCoq. In Meyer’s fanciful backstory, LeCoq wrote his masterpiece in 1916, when he was still a student at Prince-
ton. An avid tennis fan and lover of seersucker suits, LeCoq wrote, according to Meyer’s origin story, “A controversial portrait of adolescent upper-class rebellion in New England, the coming-of-age story follows Hampton Perry, a charmingly snotty college tennis champ who, after years of having everything handed to him on a silver platter, finds himself handing it all back.” A touch of Amory Blaine, a touch of Evelyn Waugh, a gleaming Spalding Kro-Bat wood racquet, a highball glass full of tinkling ice, and the shellacked gloss of Ivy League privilege: These are the ingredients that make up the light green juice of The Soft Lawn. But also: the scents of fresh tennis balls and clay courts, which Meyer created with cedarwood, a dash of lemon, a linden tree, pencil shavings, benzoin, dry vetiver grass, and an aroma chemical called methyl laitone, which smells like fresh cream and gives everything a lactic thickness, like a swirl of soft-serve consumed at a sports-club concession stand on the hottest day of the year.

All of these notes combined proclaimed tennis to Meyer (and to the customer—The Soft Lawn is still made, still selling) but not the playing of it, exactly. He said in one interview that his was “a fragrance to wear to Wimbledon as opposed to many ‘sport’ scents which give the impression of wearing them while sporting. This one isn’t something that you would want to garden in. It’s for the country club, for having a sandwich on a sunny day, with lawn tennis going on in the background.”

Shalimar

In other words, it is a scent for moneyed spectators rather than aces, for those who can afford to keep their tennis whites white, who eat canapes rather than protein bars. It is a simulacrum of the sport, for those who want to smell like the essence of the game washed clean of any physical effort. Because playing tennis, for anyone who has ever heaved a ball past the net, involves a lot of funky smells—the tang of perspiration, the used-Band-Aid aroma of a wet overgrip, the mildewed socks, the fatty waft of fried foods, the melted-Popsicle sweetness of electrolyte drinks, and of course, in an arena setting, the cloud of expensive perfumes hanging over the crowd like a luxurious thought bubble, a mixture of wealth and jasmine and musk. Together, the breathable cocktail is a bizarre combination of elegance and stench, a manicured foot covered in Gold Bond powder, a champagne glass filled with sweat. And yet, when people want to smell like tennis, at least in perfume-industry lingo, they are imagining something altogether different; they want to smell tennis-adjacent, like citrus and grass and tea roses. They want to smell sporty, which is another way of saying within-view-of-sports but not inside of them, which, if you can believe it, is a desire that has propelled a very successful corner of the perfume industry for years.

The Soft Lawn is this sort of scent, the evocation of what tennis might have smelled like in an even more conservative era—when it was still a members-only game, a game for white, wealthy Princeton men (not that it isn’t still, at its core, all these things, despite the fact that the best tennis player in the world is, indisputably, a woman of color). Meyer cloaks this desire for the bygone with the French name of his fake novelist, which he said he hopes he made “human enough that they don’t ostracize anybody.” But of course, if you long to wear the scent of a 1916 tennis club in 2017, no clever fiction can mask that which you wish to smell like: You want to spray on noblesse, to get closer to a kind of dewy green crispness that also smells like money. Of course, tennis never smelled this way. Perfume can be deceptive that way, and also deceptively cruel.

* * *

If you want to get very literal about it, there is currently a perfume out there that smells exactly like factory-fresh tennis balls and nothing else. It is called Fuzzy Balls by Demeter, and you can buy it in nearly any metropolitan drugstore. You might be shocked at the verisimilitude—Fuzzy Balls does smell exactly like popping open a vacuum seal. It isn’t a pleasant fragrance to wear; it turns the skin into a hot tire or a fresh bandage, like a car accident has happened nearby. And yet, this smell exists because someone wanted to buy it, someone whose memories of joy and pain and discipline and victory and sore muscles are all wrapped up in that whoosh of compressed air. Perhaps this is the best we can hope for when it comes to a scent that actually smells like tennis, like the secrets that longtime, devoted tennis players know.

In 2016, the Slovakian champ Dominika Cibulkova revealed before Wimbledon that, aside from her serve, she had a unique talent for blind-smelling tennis balls and telling them apart. “If you give me balls from the US Open and balls from Roland Garros, I can tell you this is this one, and this one is this one,” she boasted to the BBC. And because the BBC recognizes the potential for a good television segment, the network challenged her to do just that. They strapped a blindfold around her blond ponytail and snapped open a pack of Slazenger Wimbledon balls. “It’s very easy,” she said, grinning as she spun the ball in her hand. “It’s from here. I’m used to this smell for two weeks now in a row.” She identified the Australian Open and French Open balls in quick succession. The BBC presenter was astounded, doing an awkward bow to her skills, but Cibulkova simply giggled and shrugged. This wasn’t a magic trick to her, it was just her primal instinct; she lives with the game, and it is her job to track its scents.

I was thinking of Cibulkova when I first smelled The Soft Lawn earlier this year—about how real tennis players don’t need a fictional fairy tale to be transported into the court, about how the way tennis smells in the mind of a perfumer (washed of rubber, filled with milk) and the way it smells to a player are as different as real and synthetic roses, how my memories of tuna and pool water are all mixed up with what it means to wear a sport on your body. When tennis players make perfume to sell under their names, they rarely call upon the scents of the game for inspiration—Lacoste’s new cologne smells like cloves and pine, and Gabriella Sabatini’s megahit in the 1980s was a disco floral that smelled like being drunk on vacation. They know that there is more profit to be made when they leave the effort behind and instead invoke the glamour that surrounds the field. In the end, no one wants to smell like hard work. Hard work smells like being alone with a tennis ball long enough to know its origin story with one sniff. This sort of asceticism makes for compelling TV, but it doesn’t sell well in department stores. Instead, we continue to want the fantasy, the penumbra, the smell of fresh mornings and clean linens and the breath before the swing.

* * *

Rachel Syme is a writer and reporter whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. She is the co-creator of the perfume newsletter and salon series The Dry Down and a two-time winner of the Perfumed Plume Award for fragrance journalism.

Tamara Shopsin is a graphic designer and illustrator whose work is regularly featured in The New York Times and The New Yorker. She is also a cook at her family’s restaurant and an author. Her most recent book is Arbitrary Stupid Goal, published by MCD/FSG.