How to talk a good game

Image of Harry Eyres

Some people close to me think I’ve got tennis on the brain. The truth is worse; I have tennis in every part of my being. At this time of year, I dream drop shots and drive volleys. The only thing which makes this acceptable, at least to me, is the recognition that I share my addiction with others. Down at the club, we are all tennis mad.

Tennis may appear a primarily physical activity, a matter of biffing balls. Such a view is, of course, laughably limited. Tennis is also a matter of aesthetics and psychology, the latter nowadays rather more popular than the former. But the essential thing about tennis, which rarely gets mentioned, is that this sport consists of dialogue or, in the case of doubles, a conversation involving four participants. Tennis without rallies and sallies would be (sometimes is) a miserable affair.

Our soloistic way of regarding things leads us to consider tennis players as lone rangers, practitioners of an individual sport, like golf or hammer-throwing. But there is nothing meaningful a tennis player can do on his or her own; you cannot “play the course” as a golfer can, and however many practice serves you thunder down, you have to be aware that none of them is a true ace; to deliver an ace, you have to ace somebody.

Serving is the part of the game which most resembles hammer-throwing and nowadays commentators, who are doing their best to reduce tennis, like everything else, to statistics, become much exercised over the relative top and average speeds of various servers. But speed in itself is of questionable value; if the opponent knows where the serve is coming and puts the racket in the way, the serve can, with luck, be returned with interest.

Professional players apparently talk about who is aceable and who is not. That serving is not to be measured in kilometres per hour but in cleverness and cunning in placement and spin; it is about outwitting your opponent, not slugging it out. The people most difficult to ace are the quickest-witted, not necessarily the fleetest of foot. Roger Federer does not have what commentators like to call the “heaviest” serve in the business, but he is one of the best of all servers because of his uncanny accuracy of placing – and because, I assume, it is almost impossible to read where his serve is going. (At our club, mind you, even the server very often does not know where the serve is going.)

But even Federer, most graceful of contemporary players, has his nemesis. Even when he was “world number one”, there was one player who generally had his number: Rafael Nadal’s game, a kind of inspired grinding, neutered and, more often than not, destroyed Federer’s. Nadal has “got to” Federer in all sorts of ways; there is the extreme topspin he imparts on his forehand, causing the ball to rear up like an enraged bullock, posing a fiendish challenge especially on the backhand side for a player with a single-handed backhand (though Federer has been much more successful recently at going over the ball on his backhand); but there is also the contrast of playing speeds, Nadal’s extreme slowness and obsessive routines contrasting with Federer’s unfussy swiftness.

But the best of their contests have had a compelling drama, with (for Federer fans) a lurid sense of doom in the background. Definitely Nadal has had the edge over Federer in their recent contests, but whether that proves he is the greater player is more doubtful. Greatness, after all, is judged by all the matches a player has played with all opponents, or conversationalists, not just one. In the early part of this year Nadal himself encountered his nemesis, in the form of the revitalised Novak Djokovic, with his laser-like groundstrokes.

Tennis, like reality more generally, is relational. Some relationships and conversations are easier or more pleasant than others. Or, to put it another way, we are naturally drawn into relationships and conversations with some people rather than others. Down at the club you can sometimes hear cries of pain; they emanate from the latest victim of one of our torturers-in-chief, the arch-exponents of spins, lobs and drop-shots. I doubt whether many players in the 1980s enjoyed doing battle with the grim-visaged Ivan Lendl, Central Casting’s dream choice for a cold-war James Bond baddie. John McEnroe could be Mr Nasty, too, but he was never nasty with Björn Borg. Their tennis dialogues, featuring contrasting styles, the brilliant volleying of McEnroe against the passing shots of Borg, were always thrilling and conducted in exemplary spirit.

The best match I have seen recently was the semi-final of the French Open, in which Federer ended Djokovic’s run of 43 consecutive victories. Commenting afterwards, Federer said that if they had played a good match, it was thanks to his opponent (who generously applauded many of Federer’s winners). The words sounded even better in French, grâce à lui.

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