Geoff Dyer considers the beauty of tennisby Geoff Dyer / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Some people can’t bear football. But is there anyone who doesn’t—to put it mildly—like tennis? Whereas football games are routinely tedious, tennis matches only occasionally disappoint (as when an unknown player carves a heroic path through a Grand Slam only to capitulate helplessly in the final). The standard of an averagely important tennis match—the kind you might see on an outside court in an early round at Queen’s—is superhuman.
This is striking because it is such a difficult game to play. Not to play well, but to play at all. (Squash is easy.) Tennis is like a piano—no fun until you can play it a bit. And as with keyboard so with court: coaching at a young age is hugely advantageous.
The first thing you have to do is serve—and it’s extremely difficult to serve, to get the ball over the net and into the service box. (I am 6ft 2in, have been playing tennis for years, and still, in a way that confounds several laws of biomechanics, regularly dump my serve into the bottom half of the net.) But wait—we have already skipped a stage. Before you can serve in the sense of hitting the ball, you have to do something else: you have to throw up the ball with your non-throwing hand, the hand that is typically useless for everything. The ball toss is all-important and very hard to get right; again, we have to go further back. It’s not just how you throw the ball, it’s how you hold the ball before throwing it. I used to always throw the ball too far back so that instead of hitting it when it was about two feet in front of me I hit it when it was directly over my head (thereby exerting chiropractically-expensive strain on my lower back). So I had to change the way I held the ball (angling the hand down, spreading the fingers wide as soon as the ball was released).
Don’t worry, this is not going to turn into a coaching manual (as if!). The point is that the lessons of serving are multiplied throughout every aspect of the game: a tiny adjustment in some distant, ostensibly irrelevant part of one’s body—a part that is not directly involved in striking the ball—has a disproportionate effect on where that ball ends up. Keeping your head down while attempting a top-spin one-handed backhand (as opposed to surging instinctively upward) is, in this regard, a major adjustment. So it’s not surprising that we watch, spellbound, as people who have mastered every aspect of this immensely difficult activity go about their immensely lucrative business on the clay of Paris or the lawns of Wimbledon.