Tennis: A self-serving sport?

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 1, 2012). Every issue, my column “Life S’port” will tackle a different sporting concept.

Every Monday morning I get asked the same question: “How’d ya go on the weekend?”

Despite the potentially ambiguous nature of the query, I always know what the questioner is referring to; sport, of course. Has there ever been a more appropriate conversation starter to kick-off the week?

Having played my fair share of grassroots sports, I know all too well that banter about my weekend results is but a shallow pretext. When one enquires as to how another performed over the weekend, they are not merely filling up the empty void of dialogue with meaningless smalltalk. On the contrary, they are subtly prodding their neighbor, eager to identify where their priorities lie.

Say, for instance, I respond with my personal results: “Yeah, pretty good mate. Picked up four wickets.” From that answer alone, the questioner might suspect I am the reincarnation of Narcissus, that I participate in team sports for personal glory alone. The team is evidently of no importance to me; a win or loss is merely a subplot in the game of me.

Alternatively I could draw emphasis on the team’s performance, forgoing any mention of my own involvement. This is rarely the response desired by the questioner; indeed, what passive observer is genuinely interested in the performance of Blackburn’s 3rd XI?

As such, the implication here is that I have been a liability to my team, that my personal performance was so poor that I have resorted to using the mudguard of Blackburn to protect me from public humiliation. Of course, this is not necessarily the case. Perhaps I’m proud of my club? Perhaps I’m proud of my compatriots? Perhaps I’m one of Australia’s last remaining humble sportsmen?

Yet in glossing over personal achievements one runs the risk of missing out on well-deserved praise. Before you know it, your moment is gone; it’s time to return the favour and throw the identical question back to the enquirer. The pride of recording your personal best sprint time or hitting your first hole-in-one loses its relevance; the best you can hope is that your friend was proactive enough to have found your feats listed in the fine print of the local paper.

Baghdatis tests out one of his many tennis racquets.

The sum total of this analysis presents an intriguing dilemma of whether individual achievement takes precedence over team glory. The complexity of the situation no doubt plagues many amateur sportsmen across this nation on a weekly basis.

Tennis players are a notable exception, specifically those of the singles variety. As a sport where individual performance is most often directly related to overall results, tennis breaks the line between independence and dependence. With half a court all to yourself, you can scarcely afford to have a bad day at the office. If you fail, then “team you” fails with it.

Unlike the overt team environments of soccer or netball, one can’t expect group unity to blanket individual deficiencies. In soccer, for example, a player with wonky accuracy can get away with their defect if they consistently chip the ball to more skillful teammates. Tennis, on the other hand, affords no such luxury; if you can’t serve, the scoreboard is going to bring your flaw to the fore pretty fast. From there, the only way out is self-discipline, self-motivation, and self-improvement.

Don’t get me wrong; Djokovic is a good player, but he needs to do some serious work on his celebrations…

You can grumble all you like about tennis and its accompanying hubbub, but tennis is not a sport for the mediocre. Forget the tantrums, the orgasmic grunts and the destroyed racquets; tennis players have one of the toughest gigs going around in the sporting world. Not only is every game, set and match a face-off against an imposing opponent and a gang of incompetent ball-boys, but also a wrestle against the greatest enemy of all. The harshest critic. The most adoring fan. Oneself.

If that sounds like the kind of hackneyed retort you’re accustomed to hearing during post-match courtside interviews, there’s a reason for that. Like the sporting performance itself, the tennis player’s personality and media involvement is similarly critiqued.

In off-field tennis there is no room for awkwardness or camera shyness; after a win, one is obliged to participate in a routine celebratory moment (a jump in the air or fall to the ground) for the cameras. In football, where 48 players share the field and media passes are aplenty, no single individual has to deal with the monopoly of media attention. In tennis, the distractions are few; it’s just you, your opponent and Jim Courier.

Of course, in grassroots tennis there is no Jim Courier, not to mention cameras and crowds. The demands on the individual nevertheless largely remain the same, the most striking difference being that singles results can often contribute to overall club scores.

Not that you’d ever hear much about the club’s weekend fortunes anyway; only the hopeless players ever bother to mention it.