19 October 2018

The most beautiful game in the world

Forget football. From its scoring system to Wimbledon to the unique demands it puts on players, it is tennis that is the beautiful game. 

“All your shots must be beautiful" said one of the coaches at the Rafa Nadal Academy the last time we were there.

“That’s your job, to make every shot beautiful." 

As we head back there this weekend, anxiously wondering just how much more beauty we have actually invested in our shots, one thing does come to mind. While football may more frequently bask in the familiar epitaph, it is tennis – “the most perfect combination of athleticism, artistry, power, style, and wit,” as novelist Martin Amis described it, that is really the beautiful game.  

There is beauty in the ball toss – just watch Serena Williams use it to disguise the direction of every serve, in Wimbledon’s lawns and in tennis’s  uniquely weird but deceptively brilliant scoring system which means that even if you are match point down in the final set, you can still come back and win. The scoring system also means, as the Bleacher Report puts it, that players, “have to win the last point, regardless of the number of games, or sets, or hours that have passed. They have to repeat their all-out effort in every match, at every tournament. It is a uniquely gladiatorial contest, one opponent against another, each entirely dependent on their own strengths. And because of tennis’s special scoring system, there is no time limit, no draw, no “point of no return.” And in that there is a beauty that other sports can not emulate.

Tennis is hard. “To play tennis is to master a whole range of skills and qualities,” as they put it in Firstpost.com.

“Players have to toss a ball, strike a ball, run backwards, forwards and sideways, slide and jump. Tennis requires hand-eye co-ordination, strength, speed, stamina and flexibility. An intuitive understanding of angles and spins is a necessary requirement. The beauty of tennis is it makes this complexity look simple.”

No one in the modern game makes it look simpler or more beautiful than Roger Federer whose one handed backhand was recently and instinctively mimicked by a small child watching him play in Shanghai. Caught on film, you could see the child intuitively understand what was beautiful about the shot. 

Audiences on park courts may be less appreciative (or inspired), but as Martin Amis, once a keen player himself, put it in a piece called Tennis, My Beautiful Game, eventually it's all about cherishing, in the memory, a dozen or so shots:

“That angled drop half-volley, that topspin backhand down the line, that wrongfooting drive that put the other guy flat on his arse...”

Brad Gilbert got it wrong. It’s not about Winning Ugly. It’s about organising your matches, dodging the weather, turning up and, winning or losing, playing the game. And that’s a beautiful thing.