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.


  1. It certainly makes golf look tame. I had to watch it from behind the settee through my fingers.

  2. As something of a keen tennis player myself I know this all too well; the post Wimbledon tennis splurge is one of the most annoying moments of the summer.

    Secondly, I detest the vitriol aimed at Tim Henman. He got to four in the world, came up against one of the greatest players in the modern age in Sampras, and helped kick start a tennis revolution in Britain still going on now with Murray. Yet because he never won, and yes did lose the one semi-final he should have won, he is vilified as hopeless, useless, and much worse. A plucky British loser perhaps, but a hugely talented one.

    Plus, the psychology involved in the matches, especially between equally matched players, is another key element; it almost resembles chess at times as they work their opponent into a position, and then strike for the winner.

  3. Tennis is hard but what about cycling? Those endless miles, long days, the crashes and then at they end a huge hill no wonder they are all on drugs!

  4. Paul K4:54 pm

    One thing I can never understand is why so many people - especially women - only seem to be interested in tennis for Wimbledon fortnight. For 50 weeks, they never follow the sport, never stay up to watch a match from elsewhere in the world, never follow the rankings. Then for two weeks, they draw the curtains, stay in and watch tennis, and claim to be excited by it. How does that work?

    Imagine a "cricket fan" who only watched two weeks of the sport, and ignored all the other matches around the year. Imagine a "Formula One fan" who only watched the British Grand Prix.

    Sorry - I just don't get it...

  5. But maybe it's the same for many sports, Paul. The World Cup and the Ashes have a very similar effect on the mass audience. There's nothing wrong with that. Most people haven't got the time or inclination to get involved all the year round but a two-week tournament involving all the world's best players is something they can understand and enjoy as a drama as much as a sporting event.

  6. Well it's like golf in that respect too, there isn't a "season" anymore as they play all year round so who has time to really get into it that seriously. You have to pick and choose, watch the British Open and The Masters but not the Sainsbury's Dubai Invitational or whatever Mickey Mouse tournaments they line their pockets with.

  7. Keep in mind that to win an international tournament (played over one week) a player would play Monday (or Tuesday), Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That's tough.

  8. Tour de France, or any cycling Grand Tour. 3,000km plus, at least 5 days in the highest mountains, sometimes 5 a day. Some ride two of the three every year. Average 6,500 calories a day. Brad Wiggins in one time trial in the recent Giro d'Italia did 2,600 calories in 90 minutes. But he doesn't do that for more than six weeks in the year.

  9. No.
    Try playing sport with Schalk Burger's fingers in your eyes. The second Lions Test last saturday was more like war than sport with 1/3 of the Lions team hosplitalised and no backward step taken by anyone. Rugby is also a aport that matters in some countries (SA,Wales,NZ) and where a mistake in the shirt can lead to the player being villified by the press and the community in which they still live. There are several stories of people emigrating after cocking up in Test matches. That's real pressure! Does Tennis mean that much to anyone? I dont think it does - its nobody's "national game" I think.

    I do agree that Tennis players are spectacularly exposed and incresingly wonderful athletes.