The supreme court

Posted on June 14, 2014


Is there another sport as epic, as dramatic as tennis?

A couple of weeks ago, as I was walking on the footpath, I came in front of a ladder that was propped against one of the stores on the side. A man standing on one of the upper rungs was painting over some existing signage, but he isn’t the point of this story. My path would have taken me under the ladder, but just as I neared it I stopped and corrected my course. I went around it. I surprised myself by doing what I did, but I didn’t give it much thought until last Sunday, when I followed the French Open men’s finals without actually seeing it. My cable-TV provider didn’t have the channel that was telecasting the match live, so I opened a new tab on a browser to check what was happening. Novak Djokovic had won the first set, 6-3. Rafael Nadal had won the second set, 7-5, and was leading 3-0 in the third. At the utterly random point that I chose to follow the match, Nadal was leading. I didn’t dare close the browser tab. He won.

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Had I closed the tab, or had I typed another URL and gone elsewhere, would he have lost? I don’t know, just as I don’t know what would have happened had I walked under that ladder. But some thoughts are beyond logic, beyond common sense – they bubble up from the most atavistic part of the brain. And the French Open is the most atavistic of the Majors. It even sounds primitive, Roland Garros, with those guttural r’s. Say it out loud and it’s a roar, a Mel Gibson war cry. In contrast, Wimbledon, however emphatically you pronounce it, sounds like the venue of a knitting convention. And then there’s the surface – not manicured grass, reminding us of picnics and civilisation; not some synthetic surface, reminding us of the terrain in an unimpressively designed videogame; but angry-looking red clay, which reminds us of the surface of Mars from all those sci-fi movies. It’s unearthly. Roger Federer, when asked about the toughest surface to play, picked clay. He said the clay reacts to the weather – when it’s hot, the ball jumps up like crazy; when it rains, it bounces low but it’s extremely slow. What he’s saying is that it’s practically a living organism. It’s hostile. It’s out to get you.

And so the matches come to feel epic. This isn’t just about X battling Y but about X battling Y and the elements: the heat, the wind, the clay. But then, there’s always been something gladiatorial about tennis. An enclosed arena. A lusty, cheering crowd. X and Y going at each other with grunts, feeling the pressure, lunging wildly from side to side as if to avoid being felled by a medieval weapon. There’s a reason the winner usually ends up weeping, as if he hasn’t just conquered a rival but conquered death. Cricket is less primal, more collaborative – it’s not X versus Y, but X’s team versus Y’s team. It’s all so gentlemanly. They even come out in turns. Football is wilder, and its rabid fans are certainly from Mars – but again, they bay for the blood of teams, not individuals. And other one-on-one ball games just don’t measure up. I’m sorry if you’re a table tennis fan, but with that tiny ball, that tiny bat, that tiny net, doesn’t it feel like the sporting world’s equivalent of an architect’s model? What about badminton, you ask? It’s two grown-ups knocking about a bunch of feathers, for crying out loud. Squash, though, does come close. It has the grunt factor. But no sport that unfolds in a glorified aquarium can hope to arouse fierce passions.

Without passion, there is no drama – and that, really, is the whole point of tennis. There isn’t another sport that hews, to this extent, to the elements of theatre. Well, golf or chess maybe, if you worship Beckett. (The glazed viewer is waiting… waiting… waiting… go do it!) Tennis, on the other hand, has the thundering declamations across the net, the pauses, the back-and-forth conversations, the breaks between acts, the asides, the unceasing thrust and parry, the character development, the constant change of scenery (unlike, say, cricket, where the pitch is always green), and the acknowledgement of an audience that heckles and cheers. Plus, there’s plot and conflict, not just in the individual matches but in the thrilling trajectories of long-standing rivalries. That’s why we keep coming back – because every time we sit down for a tennis match, the stars come out of their dressing rooms and give us more drama. Roger Federer in The Lion in Winter. Novak Djokovic’s revival of The Iceman Cometh. And of course, the smash of the season, Rafael Nadal in The Miracle Worker.

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