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A revelation on the road to Wimbledon

Henry Elkins steps gingerly outside his comfort zone

Today just an observation. Writing as someone who is about as unsporty as it is possible to be, at some point during the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon yesterday I decided that, as a sport played by individuals – well, I must immediately qualify that by adding that, even when played in its doubles format, I still consider it as essentially a sport for individuals being played by pairs – tennis is the greatest spectator (television) pastime of them all.

In my view there are only two candidates for this accolade, tennis and golf, because – for a spectator – these are the two sports which best allow you to imagine yourself transported into the body of the elite participant, eyeing up the immediate problem (or opportunity) placed before you, deciding how you will make your next shot – specifically its direction and strength, allowing for all the attendant factors – and then (as it were) ‘joining’ the relevant player in his/her attempt to execute it.

In golf, this could be a 160-yard attempt with a lofted club – approaching a half-obscured green with a vicious slope and difficult pin placement – complicated in this endeavour by a strong and variable cross wind as an additional item to thwart the unwary.

In tennis the task is complicated by the mano-a-mano aspect.

Not only has your opponent just sent the ball cross-court like a bullet towards one of the tramlines, requiring you to sprint like an Olympian towards the crowd simply for the opportunity to reach it in time to even attempt a return, but behind it he has raced forward to the net in order to narrow your options and put you under pressure.

Do you attempt a swing on the run straight down the tramlines yourself, or alternatively one back cross-court in a diagonal, or do you even attempt the near-impossible … slowing the ball down enough to hoik it back over his head with a lob that lands in court just before it reaches the back line?

epa04702373 Jordan Spieth of the US hits his tee shot on the twelfth hole during the final round at the 2015 Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, USA, 12 April 2015. The Masters Tournament is held 09 April through 12 April 2015.  EPA/ERIK S. LESSER MCX001  (ERIK S. LESSER / EPA)I have watched a fair bit of televised golf in my time and often become engrossed. It has much to commend it.

Although an elite round can take five hours, you need’t get bored in between the shots because – coverage being what it is these days, probably thirty or more cameras dotted around the course – the commentators can whisk you from hole 2 to hole 16 in an instant, that is, if hole 16 is where some golfer is lining up a crucial putt or about to make a Horlicks of an attempted exit from a cavernous bunker. By the time you’ve seen that – and perhaps also been taken to see an approach to the 9th green – the golfers on hole 2 will have walked to their balls and you can re-join them to assess their next shots.

You can even make a cup of tea, take a phone call or a comfort break, and there spend your afternoon ‘at the golf’ without ever leaving the confines of your home. There are worse ways of spending another day of your life.

However, tennis has the edge because of the speed of the points and the complexities of its scoring system. Together these combine to ‘bring to the surface’ a constant series of little potential climaxes or advantages that maintain a near-permanent state of intensity and interest.

The inbuilt advantage of serving a game brings its own tensions, for the server ought to win it – if he or she does not, the advantage immediately swings to their opponent: firstly, because they’ve ‘taken one against the head’; and secondly, because next they have the advantage of serving. But then again, there’s a new opportunity for the receiver. Can they achieve an immediate ‘break back’, i.e. win the game and ‘restore’ the intended natural order to things? Or will they go effectively ‘two games down’ and allow the momentum to go further their opponent’s way?

About forty years ago, one of the first computer games was a facile version of tennis (actually, to be more accurate, it was more like squash). As I remember it [which I must stress does not mean these are the facts!], it consisted of a square white box, two ‘white’ bats (one of the left, the other on the right) and a tiny square ‘ball’. You could sit in front of the screen, trying to ‘bounce’ the ball off one of the outside lines and then (by doing this at the correct angle) through a gap which signalled the end of the point. You could even set the computer up so that you could ‘play’ another person if you wished.

djokovicMy point is, the ‘joy’ of that computer tennis game – indeed the joy of watching elite tennis itself – was in that you played by ‘assessing’ all the factors in the game and trying to hit the ball to somewhere from which your opponent could not return it.

Time and again yesterday, playing (in my minds’ eye at least) as both Djokovic and Federer, I could look out for opportunities to outwit my opponent and win the point.

Sometimes – whether at the time I was playing as Federer or Djokovic  – my alter ego himself saw what I had seen … and executed what I had decided was the right shot to attempt in the circumstances. Sometimes he achieved it and won the point. Sometimes he didn’t.

Sometimes he even produced a shot out of nowhere (one that I just didn’t not anticipate as even a possibility) and won the point via that route. And sometimes he did that, didn’t execute it quite properly and lost the point, leaving me thinking that – if only he’d played the shot that I would have liked to have played – he’d have had a better outcome.

That’s why I decided yesterday that televised tennis is the greatest spectator sport of all.

It allows the spectator the fantasy of ‘getting inside the head and body’ of an elite player – experience the match from within – to a greater extent than any other sport.

Plus it is superior to golf because the number and intensity of the pressure points within the action are so much greater. You cannot win a tennis match by playing the equivalent of ‘par golf’ (i.e. playing steadily and just minimising your mistakes) – you have to try actively to win every game (or hole, in golf’s equivalent).

In addition, of course, in tennis you aren’t going to suddenly go four behind, as you might during a golf round, where on a particular hole your opponent notches a birdie and you a triple-bogey.

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About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts