Monday, November 5, 2007

She’s also good at tennis

Martina Hingis has retired again, so I must write about tennis.

I always feel a little hypocritical for liking tennis, since I dislike all other sport passionately, and the prevailing culture of sport still more, and I can't help feeling that a liking for tennis undermines the purity of the stance - just as my hatred of modern comedy is undermined by my indefensible yet unshakeable love for Freddy Got Fingered. Is there a fundamental difference between tennis and other variants on the medieval pastime of trying to get an inflated bladder through a hoop or over a wire, either individually or in packs? Or is it just that it is the one sport you find people like Martina Hingis playing?

Help came from an unexpected quarter: an article written by Lewis Wolpert, the great biologist and author of Malignant Sadness and The Unnatural Nature of Science. He writes: "Tennis isn't just about athleticism... You could be a very good athlete and not necessarily a good tennis player... And the psychological side - the ability to clinch it, or get too nervous, how much risk to take - it's imponderable, and I don't understand it. There are so many different elements in tennis. You're making a million decisions. It's wonderful."

This decided it for me. If Lewis Wolpert doesn't understand tennis there must be something to it. So here is my tentative stab at explaining why any tennis match has the power to instantly absorb me, whereas football makes my skin itch.
It is unique among proper Dickie Davies-type sports, or at least unique-ish, which is almost as good, in that it is basically a game of the mind. It is a competition in which one intelligence is pitted against another, and is therefore more like chess than football. It demands of each player not only skill and accuracy themselves but also a facility for reading, anticipating and thwarting the tactics of their opponent. And all of this can be read in the expressions and body language of the players, and discerned in the palpable tension that grips the spectators. Plus it's the one sport you find people like Martina Hingis playing.
But it just so happens that in order to succeed at tennis, it is incidentally and additionally required of the participant that they be freakishly fit, healthy and athletic. I say incidentally because this is not, as I say, the essence of tennis (though it is part of what makes it so much more dynamic than chess for the spectator).
The trouble with tennis is that athleticism is increasingly coming to take the place of artistry; physical prowess is being allowed to trump mental agility, and turn it into just another boring sport where people propel balls at each other.
One example, of several, will suffice. Because the rules of tennis recognised the occasional likelihood of a served ball landing in court and then exiting unimpeded, it was rewarded with a point, and a name: an ace. Unforseen entirely were the days when developments in racket technology and physical fitness fanaticism could combine to produce the tennis player who can do it all the time. Yes, it's in the rule book, but just as certainly this kind of play is not what those who wrote the rule book had in mind. Had they anticipated it, they would have modified the rules.
Meanwhile, the spectators are bored, and it little matters if the serving player can do nothing else of great technical distinction, because they can still win this way. Neither is it relevant how good their opponent is at reading and anticipating, because there's nothing to read or anticipate - just a load of very fast balls to attempt vainly to keep in play.
What is happening, then, is a classic example of degradation through excess. The champions of the sport are drawn increasingly from the pool of those who exploit what is basically a loophole (or series of loopholes, for there are several acting in concert) in the regulations of the game. As such, they vastly reduce the enjoyment of an audience that likes demonstrable skill and confrontation rather than a kind of bloodless Sam Peckinpah gunfight in which two distant figures fire tennis balls at each other, swap places and do it again.
And much more disastrously, they stop the really gifted players, the ones who can truly make something out of nothing, from having a chance to display mastery of the very skills that the rules set out to reward. I mean, Pete Sampras was a nice bloke and what have you, but how much fun did you have watching him hammer them all home?
This has been a problem in men's tennis for ages, and is now deeply entrenched in the women's game too. It was Hingis herself who called Amelie Mauresmo "practically a man". Despite the flak she received, the point surely was that she was being increasingly expected to play a man's game, and that was not where her talents were located, or should be.
For Hingis, as well as pretty foxy and all that, was surely the best female tennis player of the last twenty years. When she started, it was obvious that she was set to be the greatest ever, yet her ascendancy coincided with that of those whose priorities were muscle strength and physical endurance, against whom she knew every trick to confuse and misdirect, but simply could not win out in the war of stamina.
This, coupled admittedly with a charming, freely displayed Private Pike-style petulance when things didn't go her way (that I suppose you have to be male to fully appreciate), threw her so off her stride that she first retired in 2003. Then at the end of 2005 came the news she was back, bored with riding horses all day and apparently better than ever, which we took to mean pumped-up and superfit and ready to take them on in all directions. Now after three singles titles and a return to number 6 in the rankings, but far too many encounters in which she was simply not allowed admission into the game, she's off again.
This time, she can at least say that she is now 27 years old, which probably does seem like a lifetime if you won the Wimbledon singles title a decade ago. Still, hers is the kind of skill which should be able to take on brute strength and win. If it can't, something has happened to the game. How else beyond occasional petulance to explain the lost potential of a player virtually without peer as tactician, strategist, and on-court adaptor and improviser?
Because that is what she was, and if her overall success rate seems to dispute it that's only because she was not always allowed to display these gifts, in the very game designed to test them. Anyone knows there were times when she did the cleverest stuff they'd ever seen. But when the best players don't usually win and the strongest ones usually do, something's gone wrong. And the result is that the greatest player of her generation has had to retire before her time not once but twice.
I appreciate this has nothing to do with movies, so here, at the eleventh hour, are my favourite movie tennis scenes. Not that there are all that many to choose from...
Obviously, I had to see Wimbledon, and just as obviously I was rooting for Kirsten Dunst:
But, equally obviously, the film was terrible.
So the competition comes down to two.
In second place: the invisible tennis match in Antonioni's Blow Up.
But the clear winner: the match in Strangers On a Train, because it is not incidental but central to the plot: Farley Granger has to finish in three sets if he has any chance of getting to the murder site before Robert Walker and clearing his name.
This then means that not only is it a tennis scene in an exciting film, the fact that Granger has to get it done in three sets means that it is actually nail-bitingly exciting as tennis.
A fantastic scene.