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Reading an article from an American newspaper for research purposes, I fell into a reverie. The article was about how learning improves mental agility and the sentence that stopped me in my tracks and led me off into strange realms of thought contained the words “the range of abilities that constitute intellectual muscle”. Perhaps the phrase slipped easily off the pen and for many readers would be comprehended with equal ease but for me it set up an almost impassable roadblock on the way to understanding.

What on earth is “intellectual muscle”, I wondered? Could there be an intellectual equivalent of Charles Atlas or Arnold Schwarzenegger, with an astonishingly well-developed hippocampus or frontal lobe? Would such a figure be like Mr Memory in Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps (1935), with an exceptional and ultimately fatal ability to remember facts (or inability to forget them) and solve puzzles?

I suppose talk of intellectual muscle is marginally better than the phoney genetic, electronic or cybernetic metaphors that are so prevalent in contemporary discourse – all those references to an organisation having something in its DNA, or a person being hard-wired for something, or programmed for something else.

The brain, to be blindingly obvious, is not a muscle but a mass of neural connections. Why not, then, talk about intellectual nerve rather than intellectual muscle?

Intellectual muscle sounds outdated. Muscle was needed to build the Pyramids and the railways. Now we live more on nervous energy, using little more than our fingertips to touch and tap.

I used to see the rivalry between the tennis champions Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as one between nerve and muscle. All Federer’s strokes, even his most powerful one, his forehand, are more nervy and fine-tuned than Nadal’s bludgeoning ones. Everything about Federer’s game is more about touch, timing and improvisation – the qualities of nerve – than about muscular force. That means, also, that his shots are more liable to go wrong; if Federer seems to commit more unforced errors than other top players, that is at least partly because he plays with less margin for error. His shots skim over the net whereas Nadal’s loop over, several feet above it, before dipping down and then rearing off the ground with vicious topspin.

When I started to watch Nadal, I thought his muscular forcing of the ball, especially on the forehand, standing way behind the baseline, spinning his left arm above his head as if casting a lasso, was a sort of travesty of the game. I have come to realise that Nadal possesses qualities of nerve, including the ability to improvise, as well as muscle; he just prefers, on the whole, not to use them, as his relentless if predictable Plan A almost always works.

Andy Murray is probably the player, apart from Federer, who has the most nervously fine-tuned touch, though even he has felt the need to build up his musculature with a penitential fitness regime. The part of Murray’s game I admire most, and which I think he underuses, is his volleying. Volleys, when you hit the ball before it bounces, are more about nerve than muscle; it is a matter of meeting and greeting force, almost caressing it, not of straining and forcing. Small wonder that the old-fashioned graceful art of volleying has almost been lost, especially among today’s women players, who occasionally drive-volley, but almost never caress. Watch Maria Sharapova and the young pretender Eugenie Bouchard slugging it out from the baseline and you will understand what I mean.

One of the best exponents of the volley in the women’s game in recent times has been Amélie Mauresmo, recently appointed as Murray’s coach. Mauresmo had great technique on both backhand and forehand volleys, especially on the arguably trickier forehand side. She had a reputation as a nervous player but eventually held her nerve to win two majors, the Australian Open and Wimbledon, both in 2006.

When Murray appointed Mauresmo as his coach, to chauvinist outcry from certain quarters, Mauresmo commented: “I think maybe he’s looking for something different, about emotions and sensitive things.” Murray said: “When you get a lot of men in a room, there’s often quite a lot of egos involved. In those situations, women can listen a bit better and take things on board easier than guys.”

Nerves are connected with feeling, of the most exquisite kind. Muscles can ache dully, whereas nervous pain can be sheer torture. Such pain, though, is the flipside of the most intense pleasure, as no one has recognised better than the poet John Keats. In his “Ode on Melancholy”, Keats uses sumptuous imagery to explore the deep, dark connection between pain and pleasure, how “in the very temple of Delight/ Veiled Melancholy has her Sovran shrine,/ Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.” We have moved a long way from tennis, but tennis that is all muscle and no nerve is dull indeed., @sloweyres

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