Apr 27, 2020
Why Tennis Kicks Ass (Video)
Today marks the beginning of Wimbledon and the two and a half months that Americans vaguely care about the tennis. Even though professional tennis is played year-round, there’s something about the All England Tennis Club with its fresh cut grass, starched white uniforms and strawberries and cream that feels like what tennis should be.
I first fell in love with tennis for personal reasons. Growing up, I would watch Wimbledon with my mom, during the golden age of women’s tennis. Then, in college and beyond, I loved the sport because—cue rolled eyes and J/O motions— David Foster Wallace loved it, and wrote about it frequently.
Now I love tennis for tennis’s sake. Yes, I can understand that, to the uninitiated, it may resemble a bunch of 80’s ski movie villains doing a live action role play session of Pong, but I swear, tennis is the cat’s pajamas. Here some of the many reasons why.
Tennis is fast paced, and constantly dramatic.
Tennis has a somewhat ornate scoring system, too ornate to explain in detail now (I give it my best shot here), but the philosophy behind that scoring system is simple: Keep the amount of time before an individual point is scored as short as possible, but always leave the possibility that momentum could drastically shift and the player who is losing could roar back open at all times. The scoring system is even designed so that a player could score more points than their opponent and still lose. This means that, with the exception of a righteous blowout, level of play must remain high and matches remain competitive until they’re over.
Everything in tennis moves quickly. Players are penalized if they take too long between points. The ball travels a maximum distance of 60 feet between players at speeds of up to 145 miles per hour. This is a fast, intense sport.
It’s Also Beautiful
Tennis is a tactical game, but it is also the wonder of geometry made manifest in real life. Depending on the angle and swing path of a racquet, players can make the ball do just about anything. Sometimes — like when you see Roger Federer get pushed way out wide only to hit a ball that curves around the net-post and goes in — it feels as if the players have entered some kind of cheat code.
Individual Sport, Individual Style
Tennis is for the most part a sport of individuals. Each match pits two players against one another. No two players have the same style or the exact same strengths and weaknesses. As a result, each match has a unique personality constructed out of the playing styles of the various players. These styles in turn reflect some combination of the player’s physical gifts and personality.
Current Wimbledon champ Andy Murray, for example, is both incredibly driven and terribly hard on himself. You can see this reflected not only in his habit of cursing himself out and hitting himself on the head with his racquet, but also in how he works each point, grinding out his opponents over the course of the match, often refusing to go for the easy win. Serena Williams, on the other hand, is all aggression, and the fact that she hits her best shots while running rather than standing still feels like a metaphor for the ambition and tenacity that have made her the best women’s tennis player alive.
Gender Equality (Sorta)
Yes, tennis still has a ways to go when it comes to equality between the sexes. Amongst other things, several tournaments still offer lower prize money for female players. The way women—particularly women of color—are discussed by the tennis media is often totally fucked.
At the same time, There’s a reason why seven of the top ten highest-earning female athletes are tennis players.
The most famous woman in China is a tennis player. Serena and Venus Williams are superstars here in the States. Tennis is the only major sport where the women’s game matters as much as—and sometimes quite a bit more than—the men’s.
Golden Age and Transition
On the men’s side of tennis, we are currently in what many agree is a Golden Age. The best player ever in the history of the sport? That would be current world number four Roger Federer. The second best? That would be current world number one Rafael Nadal. Novak Djokovic, currently ranked number two, is probably the best returner of all time. But all of these players are aging (particularly Federer, at the ripe old age of 32) and cracks are beginning to show in their games. This has opened the door for a new generation of talent to walk through, although no one has quite managed to do it yet. It’s a fascinating transition, a moment that mixes the mystery of who the champions of tomorrow will be with the drama of extended rivalries that in some cases stretch back to early adolescence.
If the men’s game is all about long rivalries and brewing generation change, the women’s game is all about unpredictability. Serena Williams is on the short list for greatest women’s tennis player of all time, but she hasn’t maintained her dominance this year, and the French Open last month saw the worst losses of her career. Lurking beneath her in the rankings are several great players: Li Na, who can beat anybody on a good day; the fast-and-focused Simona Halep; Agnieska Radwanska, who lacks firepower but plays a maddening game of cat and mouse with her opponents; and, of course, Maria Sharapova who can hit the bejeesus out of anything. Women’s tennis right now is as exciting and chaotic as sports can get.
It’s The Downton Abbey Of Sports
Finally, part of why tennis is worthy of love is that it’s also totally ridiculous. I’m talking Maggie-Smith-Asking-What-A-Weekend-Is ridiculous. Amongst tennis’s many etiquette rules are demands that you applaud your opponent when they win a tough point, apologize when you win a cheap one, warm your opponent up in a friendly manner and never, ever try to peg them with the ball. At Wimbledon, the players must also wear all white. As a result, tennis is a sport filled with eccentrics — most players develop a system of rituals and superstitions that border on the pathological — who must comport to a very elaborate system of customs. That they do this while also bending the laws of physics and what should be possible for a human body to do is nothing short of a miracle.