You, Me, and a Little Yellow Ball

“Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. Pitchers, golfers, goalkeepers, they mutter to themselves, of course, but tennis players talk to themselves – and answer. In the heat of a match, tennis players look like lunatics in a public square, ranting and swearing and conducting Lincoln-Douglas debates with their alter egos. Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely.”
– Andre Agassi, Open

Someone once told me she thought tennis was a boring sport. While tennis may very well look like giant ping-pong from a beginner’s point of view, to fully appreciate the game – any game, really – one simply needs to understand how it works. That’s the great thing about tennis. Like basketball, it’s ridiculously simple.

So, the basics.

The rules: the ball cannot bounce more than once. The ball must stay inside the lines. When serving, the ball must bounce within the specified service box, and the server is only given two chances to get it right (three, if the ball clips the top of the net). A point is won if:

– the ball goes out of bounds
– the ball goes into the net
– the ball bounces twice, or
– the player cannot return the ball.

The surfaces: tennis has three. Grass, clay, and hardcourt. Each surface impacts ball striking, movement and ball bounce differently, requiring the player to make adjustments to his or her technique. It also necessitates the use of warm-up events, called tournaments, that lead up to major tournaments (majors), which are also called Grand Slams.

The majors: tennis has four. The Australian Open (Asia-Pacific/hardcourt), The French Open (Europe/clay), Wimbledon (Europe/grass) and the US Open (America/hardcourt). A player’s ranking depends on the number of tournaments he/she wins. The bigger the tournament, the bigger the prize money and the number of ranking points earned. To defend their ranking, players must  either have the same results that they had the previous year, or earn more points than they did, for a higher ranking.

Game, set, match: a game is three points and a set has six games. The first player to win six games wins the set, provided the opponent is two games behind (i.e., 6-4). If both players win six games apiece with neither two games behind, the set is decided by a tie-break. A match, for men, requires best of three sets at the ATP 250 and Masters 1000 level. For Grand Slams, they play best of five. A match for women, regardless of tour level, is always best of three.

Best of all, in tennis, there is no team to rely on. There is no one else to pass a ball, a baton, a pigskin, or a puck to. There is no safety net. Boxing may be as solitary, but even in boxing, you have people in your corner, the guys who bring you water and wipe you down,  smear ointment on your lacerations, push you back into the centre of the ring, reminding you it’s not over until it’s over. You don’t get that in professional tennis. It’s a mostly solitary sport that demands utmost accountability. In tennis, if you fail, it is through no one’s fault but your own.

Tennis requires focus, willpower, courage and stamina. Most of all, it is a sport that requires control. Control of yourself, of your body, of your mind, and control of the ball. The player who controls the ball the best, is the one who wins the most. Think of the myriad different ways you can flick your wrist or twist your arm, rotate your torso, angle your body, stretch your legs. All of this in the quest to direct that little yellow orb. Where do you want it to go? What do you want it to do? What do you intend to create? Carve a laser down the line? Blast an explosion cross court? Draw a graceful arc in the sky to push an opponent back? Pull him forward with a short ball? Go right when he expects you to go left? The possibilities are endless.

There is nothing quite like watching two tennis players striving to out-think, outdo and outlast each other across the net, in a physically punishing environment, stopping short of actually drawing blood. When tennis is played by the best of the best, it is breathtaking. Suspenseful, Exciting. Brutal. Merciless. Graceful. Magical. Nuanced. And yet, at the end of it all, the players are expected to meet each other across the net, and shake hands civilly, to pretend they didn’t just spend the last few hours trying to grind each other into the dust – because yes, in tennis, your behaviour matters too. Players have gotten fined for bad behaviour, for smashing their rackets, for using foul language and abusing the referees.

There is so much more to tennis than running from side to side trying to hit a ball across the net. Tennis, boring? Not on your young, beautiful life.

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