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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Are top tennis players actually tougher than the rest?

I used to play a lot of tennis. I used to play all the year round, Christmas Day included. The only time of the year I didn't play was Wimbledon fortnight. That was partly because the sight of the top pros would make me want to throw my racket in a skip. The same TV action that was making me feel like giving up was having the opposite effect on people who never played. They were burrowing under the stairs for their equipment, racing down to public parks to give it a go as if their tennis ability was just an old muscle that needed to be re-awoken. Presumably some while later they were wondering why their slice backhand didn't go within an eighth of an inch of the net and then dip sharply before hanging a sharp right like Roger Federer's did. Then they'd give up again until the following year. And they still didn't realise just how mind-bogglingly good the best tennis players are. I know Tim Henman never won a grand slam but the abuse he came in for in this country came mainly from people who staggered down the park once a year rather than the people who knew just how tough it is to prevail in the upper reaches of this sport.

Watching Murray only just overcome Wawrinka last night was a salutary reminder that there can't be many sports that require more of the competitors than men's professional tennis. It's you and you alone, using personal reserves of stamina, concentration, athleticism, touch, power, nerve, cussedness and geometric aptitude that most of us couldn't summon for three minutes, let alone four hours and more. I've hit maybe twenty tennis balls in my life that connected with the sweet spot and went not just roughly but exactly where I wanted them to go. These people are doing it ten times a minute. There's not a split second for coasting or allowing their brain to switch off and their body do the work. They have to be pushing the other guy back a millimetre at a time, putting his feet in slightly the wrong place, forcing him into the tiny hurry that will produce the crucial error. If they don't do that he will do the same to them. And when you don't win, as happened to Stanislas Wawrinka last night, you just put your racket in your bag and go back to the dressing room, vowing to do better next time. He'll probably be out playing doubles today. Remarkable, as Dan Maskell was wont to say.