Sporting prowess isn’t one of my strong points. This will come as no great surprise to anyone that knows me. I’ve dabbled, of course. I used to run a bit and fancy I still have the legs to put many younger, thinner people to shame. At school* I played a few sports to a level that could at best be termed “average”. Tennis wasn’t one of them. I could blame my eyesight, but the truth is that I knew I wasn’t cut out for tennis many years before my wandering right eye blinked that particular option out of existence.
With the notable exception of Boris Becker, I’m not a fan of any particular individual tennis player, either. I quite like them all, really (except Nadal, but that’s a different story). I admire their brilliance. I used to run a book, each year, in the run-up to Wimbledon. I was about eleven years old and probably shouldn’t have been encouraging gambling in my peers, much less profiting off it, but it was small change and Becker always seemed to win and none of my customers seemed to like him. Needless to say, I loved him.
And it’s not as if my own nation has been a successful breeding-ground for the greats. Not in my lifetime, anyway, not until the arrival of Andy Murray, and yes, he’s a Brit, and so am I, so we do share a nation. I like Murray and I wish him well and was delighted with his US Open win, but it’s not like he’s single-handedly turned me onto the sport.
And there’s nothing visceral about tennis, as a fan. None of the hatred one has for the other football** team (except for Nadal, again). There’s just two men, or two women, or four, but let’s not complicate things, two people, standing there with sticks in their hands whacking a ball at each other.
So why does it grip me so? What is it about tennis which makes me quite certain that it is the greatest of all sports, the sport that other sports aspire to be, the purest and the best?
Anyone can play – or almost anyone. It may not have the total freedom of (track) athletics, true, but it’s played everywhere. The greatest cricketers or quarterbacks or what-not are still just the greatest from a pretty small pool of countries that play the sport. They play tennis pretty much everywhere. You just need a net and the sticks and a bit of ground, and you can improvise the net and the sticks if you have to. You don’t need a swimming pool or a horse or a [insert swear-word] half-million pound boat hand-crafted by blind Tibetan monks out of Mithril. You don’t even need a bike (to be fair, bikes can be improvised too, although I wouldn’t advise it). So if you’re the best at tennis, if you’re a Serena Williams or a Steffi Graf or a Federer or a Djokovic or a Federer or a Nadal or a Federer (particularly if you’re a Federer), you really are the best.
It’s gladiatorial – two men enter, one man leaves (having won). They don’t kill each other. They don’t even touch each other, except when they shake hands or hug at the end of the match, so it’s hardly an exposition of ultra-violence. But there’s something about it. Something “We who are about to die salute you”. When they glance up to their coaches are they looking for help or inspiration or just for the thumb signal that’ll tell them whether to stick a spear in their opponent? There’s a remarkable passage in Infinite Jest (a novel I will finish reading before I die) where one of the characters is explaining how in tennis your opponent isn’t the guy on the other side of the net, it’s you, yourself. It’s very clever and interesting and intriguing but I don’t buy it. There’s one person Novak Djokovic was trying to finish off in the Australian Open final and it wasn’t Novak Djokovic.
The tension – imagine receiving serve in a grand slam final. You’re standing there waiting for someone to hit a ball at you at the speed of a Formula One driver coming out of a fast bend and the idea isn’t just not to get hit in the face, it’s to work out when and where and get the sweet spot of your own stick to it in such a way that it ends up on the other side of the net exactly where you want it, and then bounces exactly where you want it to, at just the right speed. You’re doing all this, and you’re trying to disguise it, and you’re trying to work out where to run next because the chances are your opponent is going to get to your return and hit it straight back at you. Don’t tell me batsmen face the same thing in cricket. They don’t. They just don’t. You watch your opponent throw that ball in the air and bring his or her racket back to smack it at you and the closest thing I can think of to what it must be like is crouching down for a sprint final and waiting for the gun to go. And they have to do this every time their opponent serves. Forget the fact that I can’t see very well and I can’t move very fast and my hand-eye coordination is the reason I was never the school conker champion. Even if I had everything else, the tension of receiving serve would be enough to kill me before the first set was out.
Nowhere to hide – no team-mates. No on-court coaching. Maybe you can get an injury time-out and get your leg massaged if you’ve got a little cramp. But make no mistake, you’re on your own out there.
It’s tactical – like chess is tactical. Or snooker. But with no more than a fraction of a second to think all those moves ahead and work out how to counter them.
It’s strategic – like all the best sports, you look at your game and your opponent’s games and work out where to hit them. But not just now, not just for the next match or even the next tournament. For the long term. Like a golfer might spend a year making that tiny change to their putting action that makes the difference between missing the cut and winning the major. And a tennis player, with their coach, will make over time the small changes that need to be made to their game, will adjust their over-reliance on drop-shots (and their opponents’ realisation of that), their tendency to second-serve the same way more often the not. Small, long-term changes that can make all the difference.
It ebbs and flows – true, most sports that run more than a few minutes have an ebb and flow to them. The winner’s rarely on top the whole way through. But in tennis that’s somehow surprising. When a player gets broken in the third game and struggles even to hold his serve for the rest of the set, maybe manages to drag the next set to a tie-break and lose it without looking like they were even putting up a fight, you don’t see how they’re going to come back. And then they do. It turns, suddenly, and they’ve taken the next two sets and brought it to a thrilling decider. It’s so unlikely and yet it seems to happen so often.
It takes the package – strength, obviously. Finesse, athleticism and nimbleness, stamina and determination, intelligence and imagination. The greatest rallies have so much imagination in them they’re almost works of art. The greatest players are capable of surprising you every time they get their stick to the ball.
I understand that other sports have their champions (in both senses of the word). I’m sure there are compelling arguments to be made for basketball or boxing or elephant polo. I don’t even watch as much tennis as I should. I have no wild, irrational fondness for any particular player like I do for (ahem) Arsenal. It doesn’t matter. Tennis is the sport for me.
*note to North American readers: I mean high school, not university. The closest I came to sport at university was the last-minute dash to the off-licence before closing time, an obscure event, it’s true, but one at which I excelled.
** “soccer”. I’ve no idea whether American Football breeds tribal hatreds like Association Football does, so I’ll leave it there.
If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.