But it's not always all that much fun to playby William Skidelsky / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
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…