Why is Tennis Beautiful?
No one put it better than the late David Foster Wallace when he philosophized about the aesthetic beauty of sports in his article Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.
“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
I’m drawn to this article partly because because of my bias and love for the great Roger Federer, and partly because this is how I feel every time I watch a tennis match. Although tennis is just a game, I do believe that competitive sports offer us one of the highest forms of artistic and individual expression known to mankind.
When on the practice court, I feel like a musician practicing his scales focusing on repetition and strict discipline. When I play a practice set, I’m largely reading the sheet music and executing to a plan. But when under pressure, the combination of shot selection and athleticism is my form of improvisation. Like in music, there are moments of tension and release. There is a tempo to match play. Short staccato points interwoven with legato rallies. The five hour matches played by Nadal and Djokovic are symphonic. They are some of the greatest opuses ever written.
There is No One Size Fit’s All Approach to Tennis
The top French tennis players are the perfect case study for diversity and individual expression in the game. When I watch the best tennis players coming out of France, I see tremendous variety in their individual styles of play. I love that for such a small country, and with so many years of tennis history behind them, they continue to produce great players without a one size fits all approach to the game.
I can spend hours watching Gasquet hit his trademark one handed backhand.
Contrast 5 foot 9 Gasquet with the blistering power of Jo Wilfred Tsonga.
Then of course there is the always entertaining Gael Monfils. This guy is so freakishly athletic and is able to contort his body in such amazing ways that you are often left wondering if his bones are made of rubber.
This kind of variety in backswings, one handed versus two handed backhand, change of pace and shot selection, and all court play make the French players some of the most fun to watch and some of the most creative players on tour.
Live sports vs Televised sports
Why do people pay exorbitant prices to witness the spectacle that is live sports? There is something different about witnessing tennis in person than trying to digest it all on television. Sitting court side, next to all of the action, you see players making decisions about what to do with the ball in mere seconds. Watching on television, you are unaware of the physicality, the determination to get to that next ball, and the amount of ground covered from shot to shot. Tennis on television makes the game look effortless. Part of that is due to the height and camera angles necessary to capture the whole court and part of that is due to the mechanically smooth nature of many of the top pros in the game. If you haven’t watched tennis live, I high recommend it.
My Side of The Net
I’m often dumb founded when people say that today’s game is nothing but big booming serves and boring baseline play. Tennis has become an all court game. Better athletes using the whole geometry of the court, push each other to the limits of what was once considered not possible. It’s hard to put into words what I feel when watching a great match. It’s been compared to a mathematician looking at a perfect equation, an artist marveling at a great painting, or a musician listening to a masterpiece concerto. All of the pleasure centers of my brain are activated and my attention is captured fully by each shot.
I think there is also something to be said for having played the game at a high level. When I watch professionals make the impossible look like a walk in the park, I have a truly deep appreciation for the amount of sacrifice that makes that one moment a reality. We see the end results of their hard work, and we are rewarded as spectators with their choreography. We are invited to watch the maestros carve their places in history.
David Foster Wallace was right to describe watching Roger Federer as a religious experience. Some people worship God. I believe in Tennis.