“The great thing about tennis is you just can’t run out the clock,” points out Darren Cahill, an Australian Davis Cupper who has coached Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and current world No. 1 Simona Halep. No matter how tired, nervous or injured you are, you have to win the last point. Nothing is more exhilarating, albeit sometimes nerve-racking, than closing out close matches. And, for fans, nothing is more thrilling than their favourite player reaching championship point.
Two is enough
Unlike football, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, cricket and other leading team sports that require double-digit players for a game, tennis requires only two players for a robust practice or match.
The great ones treat us to their brilliant trademark shots with astonishing frequency. The deadly forehands of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Ivan Lendl and Steffi Graf. The overpowering and stunningly accurate serves of Serena Williams, Pete Sampras, Pancho Gonzales and Milos Raonic. The impeccable backhands of Novak Djokovic, Don Budge, Agassi and Lindsay Davenport. The devastating volleys of Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, and Stefan Edberg. And let’s not forget the clever, eye-catching finesse and touch shots of Martina Hingis, Fabrice Santoro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Miloslav Mecir.
For terrific tennis, abundant contrasts and amazing longevity, the 16-year, 80-match rivalry between superstars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert remains the gold standard. This century, the Big 3 of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have treated us to three close, fluctuating and riveting rivalries. Other memorable rivalries that gave us epic duels include Sampras vs Agassi, Bjorn Borg vs McEnroe, Graf vs Monica Seles, King vs Margaret Court and Ken Rosewall vs Lew Hoad.
The scoring system in tennis is brilliant because some points are more important than others, and players must win games by two points and sets by two games up to 6-all. Both themes are heightened in tiebreakers, where every point is precious. The pressure for players and the excitement for fans intensify when tiebreakers arrive at 6-games-all. Tiebreakers provide thrilling climaxes to sets and even more excruciatingly tense climaxes in the deciding set of matches.
Sport for a lifetime
Kids as young as five play and even take lessons, and geriatrics compete in 95-and-over tournaments. Sometimes players as much as three generations apart face each other in USTA 3.0, 3.5, and 4.0 tournaments.
Because many young African Americans lacked the opportunity and money to develop their skills, Arthur Ashe, in Advantage Ashe , wrote, “Tennis is still mostly for the country-club types.”
As a boy in the 1950s, Ashe was not allowed to play on racially segregated tennis courts in Richmond, Virginia. In 1969, he founded the National Junior Tennis League with fellow University of California, Los Angeles, alum Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan “Sherry” Snyder.
The NJTL was designed “to gain and hold the attention of young people in the inner cities and other poor environments.”
Since then, tennis and philanthropy have become almost synonymous. Vitas Gerulaitis, Pam Shriver, Andrea Jaeger, Andy Roddick, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi, Johan Kriek, Leander Paes, Novak Djokovic and scores of other tennis altruists have used their money and fame to fund and promote humanitarian causes.
Physical health benefits
In his article ‘Health Benefits of Tennis: Why Play Tennis?’, Jack L. Groppel, PhD, wrote: “People who participate in tennis three hours per week [at moderately vigorous intensity] cut their risk of death in half from any cause, according to physician Ralph Paffenbarger who studied over 10,000 people over a period of 20 years.”
Emotional health benefits
Dr Groppel also wrote: “Tennis players scored higher in vigour, optimism and self-esteem while scoring lower in depression, anger, confusion, anxiety and tension than other athletes and non-athletes, according to Dr Joan Finn and colleagues at Southern Connecticut State University. Tennis outperforms golf, inline skating and most other sports in developing positive personality characteristics, according to Dr Jim Gavin, author of The Exercise Habit .”
Mental health benefits
Regarding this, Dr Groppel wrote: “Since tennis requires alertness and tactical thinking, it may generate new connections between nerves in the brain and thus promote a lifetime of continuing development of the brain, reported scientists at the University of Illinois.”
Unsung heroes abound in tennis. They are tennis moms and dads, tournament volunteers, high school coaches, community organizers, racket stringers, association and club committee members, ball kids, line judges and all those who work so others can play. Without them, where would we be?
The legends and lore of every sport derive in large part from memorable contests. The 2008 Wimbledon final between legends Federer and Nadal, the 1980 Wimbledon final pitting the hero Borg against the villain McEnroe, and the Evert-Navratilova duel at the 1985 French Open rank at the top of the many superb matches between champions and contenders at the most prestigious competitions.
Since Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling technology was installed at the 2005 US Open, time-wasting and sometimes acrimonious arguments about whether a shot landed in or out have virtually disappeared. The Hawk-Eye replay system is 99.99 per cent accurate. Ironically, the implementation of gimmicky, unfair Player Challenges – made by players with fallible eyesight – has resulted in incorrect line calls that Hawk-Eye was intended to end.
Dwight Davis, a rich Harvard University kid from St Louis, founded the Davis Cup in 1900 to promote international goodwill and understanding. Since then, the Davis Cup has ranked as the greatest international team event in tennis and the most prestigious annual international team competition in all of sports.
As International Tennis Federation president Philippe Chatrier wrote in the 1985 book The History of the Davis Cup , “For all the marvellous tennis we see in the major tournaments and the awesome individual talents of some of our leading men and women champions, I doubt if there is anything that can generate such widespread emotion and atmosphere as international team events which capture patriotic attention. In this the Davis Cup has no peer.”
The ITF has more member nations than the United Nations. The top 15 ranked men’s singles players come from different countries, and the top 100 includes players from Moldova, Tunisia, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 3.5 million). On the women’s tour, top-100 players come from Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Puerto Rico, Estonia and Chinese Taipei.
Have racket, will travel
All you need is a racket and sneakers when you hit the road, and you can hook up with another player close to your level just about anywhere.
In a 1982 World Tennis magazine editorial, ITF secretary David Gray provided four compelling reasons for readmitting tennis to the Olympics: “The universality of the sport, the growth of participation and public interest, our history [Baron de Coubertin had regarded us as suitable for the first modern Olympics in 1896] and the simplicity of our requirements.”
Gray was proved right on all counts. Andre Agassi, who boasts a career Grand Slam and a gold medal at the Atlanta Games, summed up the importance of a gold medal best: “To win a Grand Slam [title] is the greatest thing in the sport, but to win an Olympics is the biggest thing you can do in all sports.”
Evert, a terrific competitor herself, called Nadal “the greatest competitor in any sport.” Basketball great Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain rated Seles the best competitor he had ever seen or played against. Jimmy Connors, Graf, Lleyton Hewitt, Maureen Connolly, King, Borg, Serena Williams and Gonzales also rank high among the many diehard competitors who earned accolades for fighting relentlessly for every point.
No sport comes close to tennis for colourful, candid and compelling quotes. Here are some juicy samples. On her sibling rivalry with Venus, teenager Serena Williams quipped, “What’s love got to do with it? I don’t have time to come along slowly; we both want to be No. 1.” Ageing bad boy Connors fired this zinger at McEnroe: “I don’t know that I changed all that much. They just found somebody worse.” Agassi confided, “Sex doesn’t interfere with your tennis. It’s staying out all night trying to find it that affects your tennis.”
Seles and Petra Kvitova returned to the women’s tour after recovering from horrific stabbings. Court, Evonne Goolagong and Serena Williams came back after having a baby. Kim Clijsters spent nearly two years in retirement before returning to competition, then won three of her four major titles. Juan Martin del Potro overcame a prolonged career slump caused by multiple wrist injuries and surgeries to reach his second major final at the 2018 US Open, nine years after his first there. All of these inspiring comebacks were successful in varying degrees.
Tennis boasts the most athletes among the top 15 on ESPN magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most famous athletes, based on three factors – endorsement dollars, Google Trend score and social media following: No. 5 Federer, No. 8 Nadal, No. 12 Serena Williams and No. 13 Djokovic.
The other tennis players on ESPN’s list include No. 21 Maria Sharapova, No. 48 Venus Williams, No. 56 Andy Murray, No. 66 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 76 Stan Wawrinka, No. 77 Simona Halep, No. 98 Victoria Azarenka and No. 100 Sania Mirza.
Tennis fans are so enthusiastic, knowledgeable and opinionated because an estimated 90 per cent of them are past or current players themselves. That’s far higher than in many major sports, such as football, hockey, baseball, boxing, and soccer.
Strapping men do cry in both victory and defeat. “Real men don’t cry” has been the ethos, but the Big 4 – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – have unleashed an acceptable new masculinity. Nadal consoled a sobbing Federer after the 2009 Australian Open final.
An empathetic del Potro comforted and hugged a bawling Nicolas Almagro, who was felled by a knee injury during their 2017 French Open match, saying, “I know how sad [he] could feel...after an injury, because I had a lot.” When Djokovic saw the vanquished Del Potro crying in his chair at the 2018 US Open, he put his arms around the gentle 6’6” giant and placed his head against the head of his good friend. These images are as evocative as they are indelible.
This is the first of a two part series.
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- Al Nassr 4-1 Al Riyadh Highlights: Cristiano Ronaldo scores and assists for Saudi Pro League side
- Russia says IOC rules for Russian athletes ‘discriminatory’
- Real Madrid boss Ancelotti expecting Vinicius to return in January
- Volleyball Club World Championship: Ahmedabad Defenders loses to reigning champion Sicoma Perugia, out of semis race