But it's not always all that much fun to playby William Skidelsky / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I was young I played a variety of sports: cricket, tennis, football, squash. Nowadays, I only play tennis. This winnowing of my interests may be a function of age (I’m 39), having a family (life is more circumscribed than it was), and convenience (there’s a club just down the road). But it also reflects something else. Tennis, I’ve come to believe, is the most interesting sport there is.
There are, I think, three reasons for this. The first is complexity. Tennis may look straightforward (two players hitting a ball back and forth across a net) but it’s anything but. Technically, it’s hugely varied; no other sport involves so many different movements. All rackets sports, because they involve hitting a moving ball with a racket, are technically complex: racket players must master a far wider range of strokes than, say, snooker players and golfers. Tennis not only contains more basic strokes than other racket sports; it also features more variants (especially spin variants) of those shots. Table tennis (which also relies a lot on spin) probably comes closest, but in table tennis there are no volleys and no overhead serves.
Strategically, too, tennis is complex—though arguably less so than it used to be. Because players have the option of hitting either groundstrokes or volleys, two main strategic variations developed: serve-and-volley (as practised by John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova) and baseline play (Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert). Modern technology, in the form of composite rackets and polyester strings, has largely killed off the former: groundstrokes have become so powerful that coming to the net all the time no longer makes sense. Nowadays, at every level of the sport, baseline play is the norm. But a high-quality baseline battle is still intensely strategic. Players must plot and calculate, use every calibration of spin, pace and angle to maneuvre their opponent into a point-yielding position. It’s like a game of chess, only played at speed.
“And where there are decisions, there’s a sense of accountability. If you screw up, it’s your fault”
Second, there’s psychology. Tennis is a sport that exerts acute, and very particular, mental pressures. As anyone who plays regularly knows, it is extremely hard, during a close match, to keep one’s emotions in check. No other sport features the pageant of bad behaviour that tennis courts routinely witness: the racket-throwing, the swearing, the endless self-admonishment. (Can you imagine a ping pong player smashing his or her racket?)
Why is this? Over the years, I’ve thought quite a lot about this question, and I’m still not sure I really know the answer. But here are two suggestions. Tennis’s margins are much finer than they appear to be. The court looks big—all that space to hit into!—but it’s actually surprisingly easy to miss. Just the smallest misjudgement of timing or racket angle is liable to cause the ball to fly out. This makes the game endlessly frustrating, and also means that any physical or mental tension (produced, very often, by the frustration of missing) is likely to have a disproportionate impact. The other factor is time. Because it takes a while for the ball to cross the net, tennis players, during a point, aren’t merely reacting to events. Time may be limited, but there is still enough, just, to plan and reflect. In other words, tennis players exert free will; they make choices. And where there are decisions, there’s a sense of accountability. If you screw up, it’s basically your fault.
The upshot is that tennis isn’t necessarily fun to play. If your mind-set isn’t right, it can be torture. But conversely, when things go well, it is, for me anyway, uniquely satisfying. Winning a close match involves a double sense of achievement: the feeling that you’ve triumphed not just over an opponent, but also over your own worst self.
The last interesting thing about tennis is its unusually convoluted scoring system. With its arcane terminology (love, deuce, advantage) and strange non-linearity (why 15? why 40?), it feels like a relic from a bygone age. Not surprisingly, rationalists are forever trying to reform the system. Just recently, there was a proposal in Sports Illustrated to “regulate” the sport by doing away with games altogether and turning sets, in effect, into marathon tiebreaks. There is only one sensible response to this suggestion: what a terrible idea.
Anyone who understands tennis knows that the scoring system is integral to its beauty. The purpose of the terminology, and the tripartite buffering of game, set and match, is to deflect attention from what a tennis match (like pretty much any sporting event) really is: a points contest, coldly numerical. It imbues the sport with drama both metaphorical, because the calling out of the score feels performative, and literal, because games and sets guarantee a constant ebb and flow of tension, a continual deferring of final outcome. Tennis is a deceptive, multi-levelled sport; you can win more games than your opponent without winning the match, and often it isn’t even clear what the real “game” is. The scoring system, with its tiers and irregularities, is a fitting vessel for such complexity.