TENNIS, OR CHESS ON THE RUN


(Written for the Lavazza pop-up at Wimbledon 2019)


Athletes are in many ways today’s religious ascetics, they devote themselves to a single pursuit, endure lifelong privation and pain in order to realise this pursuit, and are lauded for their efforts. In a sport such as tennis, whereupon the individual has only himself and not his teammates to count on – where the game is one of mental as much as physical discipline, this is doubly valid.

Tennis is the most solitary of sports. You cannot touch your opponent. Your coach may be by the wayside but he is forbidden to speak during the match. Silence is demanded by the audience during play. What shocks the viewer most during a game of tennis, especially at Wimbledon, is that as soon as Federer begins to bounce the ball in preparation for his serve 15,000H. people are silent and even in the stands you can hear the ball bounce on a manicured lawn. Eye contact is made and the space between player and opponent is blocked by a wall of string – all that is left is 27 feet of baseline that one must be able to cover from shots coming at all speeds and angles. They are quintessentially alone.

It is seems hard to understand why the babbling of audiences would be any more distracting to Ashleigh Barty setting up a serve than Messi setting up a free kick or Anthony Joshua in the ring. However silence is revered and respected in tennis. It is the admiration of spectators to players and perhaps more so to the game itself that demands that they do as little as possible to distract players. You will notice that at any of the grand slams no one would even imagine to yell insult to a player. In fact very little is said by fans at all other than occasional “Go on x!” or “yes x” and such is much more likely said when the player is losing rather than winning. Audiences cannot enter the stands during play and must wait until the end of an odd numbered game to return to their seats laden with concessions. The reverence of fans is directed at the players but also towards the game and its ritual.

Those who have dabbled in the sport are somewhat aware of how difficult it is to play to a high level. However to envisage the gulf between a very good amateur or University player and the top twenty on the Tour really is impossible. Television does not permit us to really see the tactical cunning, physical perfection and artistic finesse required at the top level. These are men and women who can turn 180 degrees, hit a ball coming at them at them at 220 kmh and return it at an equally high speed into an area the size of this magazine over a net a yard high while being obsessed over by tens of thousands of people and millions at home, often all the time knowing that they will probably lose the match. Yet they do this repeatedly – with something like 95 percent accuracy.


Like the holy men of our pre-Industrial age a point of particular admiration is the mental mastery required to play the game. The player, alone as she is on the court has no one one but herself to count on yet also no one to blame. Mistakes in a game of tennis are not ‘small issues’ nor ‘serious blunders’. Each mistake is simply that, a mistake, but it is also, crucially, a point for the opponent.

A top twenty player makes few genuine mistakes or “unforced errors”. The player seeks instead to force her opponent into making errors. Manipulating both the adversary’s physical and mental faculties – pinpointing the minute gaps in her play in order to get her to commit a mistake that is the fine boundary between loss and glory.

Yet, somehow, under such unimaginable pressure, players keep playing and keep playing extremely well. Mistake after mistake they do not relent – often bouncing back and winning. In such cases it is ones mental resilience that enables victory – because the game is fundamentally played against the self.

Post-match interviews are littered with references to “his volley broke me” and “I broke her after the second set”. Point to the real game that is played in the upper echelons of the tour, a hidden game played not within the impossible physics of a nylon-rubber ball but within glances and moves. The game is, as Foster-Wallace put it, “Like chess on the run, beautiful and infinitely dense”.

Top tennis players can, in performance, be totally present – with a temperament that belies either religiosity or insanity- proceeding on instinct and autonomic response. The adversary is like a wild partner in a high-speed tango and your aim is to ensure that you do not put the wrong foot forward. And nowhere is the dance more regal than at Wimbledon.

Like a grand old Manor House, Wimbledon has a number of eccentricities and traditions – the obligation to wear white on the court, the Ralph Lauren designed umpire’s uniforms, impeccable gardening, Italian Lavazza coffee, strawberries and cream and of course, the Royal Box. The tournament has been criticised for some such traditions and often rightly so. The use of titles such as Miss and Mrs before the name of female players (it was never the case for men) was done away with this year and very rightly so. Interestingly, on Wikipedia, the ‘traditions’ section is prefaced with a quote from an Ellis Cashmore which has described it as “remote and insulated” and “nobody’s idea of all things British”. Which of course in our age is completely true and would be a great point if Wimbledon’s purpose were to reflect the social nuance and behaviour of modern day Britain.

The Championships, Wimbledon (as it is properly titled) hold a particular place among tennis competitions based solely on repute. This reputation however goes far further than its traditions. The grass lawns of south London, like the turns of Monaco or the waves at Maverick’s are the greatest expression of their sport. It is no harder to qualify for Wimbledon than any of the other grand slams nor are the rules or tournament mechanics significantly different. However there is a certain sense that players and fans alike recognise – a duty to be on their best behaviour while on or between these grass courts. It is much like the sort of feeling of visiting a town while in school uniform or taking out the ‘good plates’ when someone exciting is coming over for dinner.

It is a tournament where audiences cheer on players who are losing against their favourites and players give their water bottles to panting ball boys in the midst of sun-soaked matches. The Championships’ decorum in this sport is revered because it represents and elicits respect not for a team or a player but for the game itself. The game is worshipped at Wimbledon more than anywhere else, the audience are pilgrims, the players are clergy, the court hallowed ground and miracles, they do happen.