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In Praise of Tennis

Apart from chess and a few variations of itself, tennis is the only individual sport that is adversarial yet not a contact sport, although sometimes it seems it is only the net that prevents the two players from getting at each other. Because it is there, however, each player is facing his or her opponent in a space of his own, separated and left alone with his own strategy and tactics, his own thoughts and insecurities, and his own self, which in fact gives him two opponents — the Other and the Self. Since all these factors come to be expressed in a player’s movements, his body language, and his face before they are finally expressed on the results sheet, a tennis match more than a chess game is a piece of theater, a drama both physical and psychological. As in any play, there are plots and twists, climaxes, setbacks, and denouements, the great turning points, the windows of opportunity — which, taken, lead to triumph; or, once missed, lead to an inevitable defeat. Although few people would confuse a tennis game with life, there is enough life-like quality in it to keep us in thrall.

There have been many positives and negatives at the Wimbledon this year. Since about one half of each Wimbledon has been regularly rained-out, the organizers built a magnificent moveable rain roof over the Centre Court, only to see hardly a drop of rain for the whole fortnight. Both the men’s and women’s finals were a bit of an anticlimax after the unforgettable Nadal-Federer final of 2008 and the equally dramatic Federer-Roddick final last year. This year, I am afraid, Tomas Berdych went under quite meekly, although it would have probably taken a full contingent of Pamplona bulls to stop Nadal. Still, both the finalists’ ambassadors get to sit in the Royal Box, so one should count one’s blessings.

The most remarkable match of this year’s tournament was thus neither the most beautiful, nor the most thrilling but certainly the longest ever. It was painful to watch John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut after 183 games of which the fifth set alone took 138 and more than eight hours. In fact, it was impossible to watch the whole match and one could not help feeling that neither of the two protagonists themselves had been present for the duration. Yet of all the hundreds of matches played at this year’s Wimbledon, it was this lowly first-round tie that turned out to be impossible to forget.

Maybe the most intriguing question about this nightmare experience was what kept the players going for three days of relentless, if uninspiring, slugfest, which resembled three days of service practice rather than a contested match. Certainly it was not the money, the difference between first-round and second-round losers adding up to merely a £7,500. As John McEnroe observed, they were both bound to lose at least six months of their tennis lives on account of the experience, and considerably more money along with it. Indeed, John Isner, the winner, won just five games in going down against an otherwise beatable opponent in the next round.

Apparently neither was trying to beat the other player, either. At the end of the second day of the match, the players seemed to be hardly aware of each other. They only made half-hearted attempts to return each other’s serves (if they could see the ball in the gathering darkness at all). And this was also the moment of the dramatic turn, one small glimpse of human weakness that guaranteed the next day’s result with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. For Mahut had the game won. His much bigger and heavier opponent was running out of steam with every passing shot. Isner, who had served in the practically unreturnable high 130s (mph) at the top of his game, came down to high 90s. He could not take a step to reach even the easiest ball and he seemed ready to fall over at the next one. And yet it was Mahut who suddenly insisted that the play should stop because of darkness. He was right but Isner was by that time so spaced out he made out he did not care. He was willing to play on. Predictably Mahut won the argument and lost the match the next day. Maybe that is why he looked so utterly desperate when it was over, like a man who realizes he only has himself to blame. It hardly mattered. They both looked desperate. Their embrace at the net was not the usual gesture of joy on the one hand and reluctant congratulation on the other. It resembled two shell-shocked soldiers clutching at each other after a losing battle that they somehow inexplicably survived.

So why did they play on? It was probably that they did not know otherwise, that they played because it was the only thing to do and were willing to continue for however long it took. In the end, there seems to be just one inescapable though unbelievable, marvelous explanation for this display of human endurance, spirit and ultimate futility: In the days of mega stars, endorsements, sponsors, huge awards and the accompanying hubris, the two tennis players seemed to be playing for honor.

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