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WHY A LOVE OF TENNIS

Tolstoy. David Foster Wallace. Both literary giants saw oblivion and both graced the game of tennis as a form of redemption. My journey existed in experiencing elite sport and a constant yearning for the great Blackwood Tree.
Edward Hopkins

It seems love is an egg.

Each game of tennis begins with the call of ‘love.’

But why love?

Why 30 love?

Why 15?

Why 40 instead of 45?

Why score this way?

During endless broadcasts of tournaments, tennis commentators refer routinely to love.

But love, by nature, is not routine. Nor is the call of love in tennis.

This strange ‘love’ call in tennis is said to derive from the French origins of the game and the Anglicisation of the term l’oeuf meaning egg, or zero. Hence l’oeuf for quinze became love – 15 and so on. The step through from 15 to 30 to 40 is hard to fathom. Logic suggests the call of 40 should at least be 45.

However this translation occurred, the gorgeous effect is to declare each game a beginning, a new affair. It is therefore apt that following l’oeuf is the scoring principle of nesting. There is no other scoring system in sport that has, like tennis, seized on the concepts of love, incubation, and renewal.

Nesting is the inherent stage within scoring where the final outcome can turn. Tennis has three nests – game, set, and match. Squash and table tennis have two nests – game and match. More nests mean a higher chance of a turnaround. Until the end there is uncertainty. No matter the situation, recovery is possible. Even if the player is ahead by a long margin, nesting means a player must avoid complacency.

Real love can be expressed in many ways, but it is not complacent.

Tennis legend Rod Laver epitomizes the appeal of scoring love and nesting. In the 1960 Australian Open, he was down 5-7 and 3-6 to fellow Australian player, Neale Fraser and recovered to win the following three sets and register the first of his Grand Slam titles. In his second Grand Slam year of 1969, at Wimbledon he was down 3-6 to 4-6 to Premjit Lall and recovered to win the next three sets 6-3, 6-0, 6-0.

Tennis benefits from its sensual language and structural mathematics. It is unique to the extent it has spurned romanticism, nation building, and a common, worldwide language.

The Russian author, Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), had a good grasp of it. Tennis, modernism, and literature blossomed during his lifetime.

Each became linked to the other.

At first, he was disparaging of tennis.

Then he fell in love with it.

At first he only knew its early origins as an English fad.

In ‘Anna Karenina’, Anna and Vronsky are presented swatting futilely at the tiny ball, poised on the edge of a vast spiritual and moral abyss. According to the literary critic, Elif Batuman, ‘at the age of 68, Tolstoy was given a tennis racket and taught the rules of the game. He became an instant tennis addict.’

‘No other writer was as prone to greater contradictions. All summer long, Tolstoy played tennis for three hours every day. No other opponent could rival Tolstoy’s indefatigable thirst for the game; his guests and children would take turns playing against him. Many were in awe of Tolstoy’s athleticism. He should have lived to see 85, 90, 100!’

As Tolstoy had cottoned on with tennis, nowadays it is commonplace for participating and non-participating fans alike to express a love of sport, of all varieties. It’s a privilege sport now enjoys like no other endeavour. I recall during my boyhood eagerly putting my hand up to play any sport I could, at school, local venues, and for the informal games like poison ball and keepings off.

In my hometown, I was usually first or second picked for any team of my age, or even older and cannot remember an instance of discouragement. I represented the school and my hometown. I showed a lot of promise to go much further. Teachers let me off class early, ticked school assignments even if I didn’t complete them.

If I had said, I want to be a ballet dancer, artist, soldier, intellectual, writer, or a bank manager; I imagine mum or dad or someone else from the adult world or my friends protesting: too pooncey, too dangerous, unsuitable, boring, won’t pay, outside your league.

Dad was passionate that I would soon follow in his footsteps and work in the family dry cleaning business. The one concession was his consent that I could travel far afield, as long as I achieved something special in sport.

By 21 years of age I had retired from my good prospects of competing for a World Water Ski title and also decided not to continue playing Australian Football at an elite level. At that time I had started to become troubled by the inward restraints of existence as a fairytale-sporting hero. I entered university studies, and for the first time in my life discovered a taste for literature and philosophy. From then on, I wanted to test myself: Could I kick and think at the same time?

Over time, I have steadily understood the wider influences of home ground advantage and scoring systems in sport and other fields. Also, in elite sport, elite performance standards are impossible to maintain unless the individual and the team has the capacity for recovery and renewal.

It seems odd to me that in a world now dominated by ism’s, there is no recognisedSportism, given that the foundation for all modern sport categories hinges upon the invention of codified competition rules and scoring systems that came to the fore in Britain during the mid-19th Century. During this time, the progress of sport and the modernist enterprise literally kicked off together, until today’s version of the excessive internalising of sport on the one hand, and bludgeoning commercial expansion on the other.

On face value, the various rules and scoring systems that are at the heart of each sporting code seem less-than-sexy. Which is bizarre, because the implied neutrality (conforming to the rules and scoring systems) and love, as it is experienced (variable and sometimes volatile) appear at odds.

How does this work?

Nowadays, sport goes to the heart of character.

Before Tolstoy, French writer Alexandre Dumas was the first to spread the word on a mass scale, even though what he describes is a form of pre-modern sport.

His Three Musketeers was first serialized in a newspaper format in 1844. His central characters, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis play ‘royal’ tennis, which is a precursor to the modern version, which later became vogue in Britain and the United States in 1879 and quickly afterwards. How each of the Musketeer’s approaches and plays the game is a vehicle for describing their different personalities, tactics on the court and in life, and their respective physical attributes. The quest for liberty and perspiring on the court bond them in a common cause.

Dumas effectively signaled game on and ever since, tennis and sport has appeared in endless writing and films, not just as a backdrop, but as a window into character and much more.

More recent are the references to tennis in the novels and essays of acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace (1962 – 2008). His essay masterpiece, Roger Federer as Religious Experience (New York Times, 2006) was later retitled Both Flesh And Not, and adopted as the title of his collected essays (first published in 2012 by Little, Brown & Company).

He sees the sport of tennis as a cartography for exploring the natural world and not-so-natural universe. After receiving a media pass to the US Open he wrote the essay, ‘Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open’ [Tennis, 1996] in which he recounted an overheard conversation by two die-hard fans, assessing Andre Agassi’s rehabilitation:

It’s like he used to be brat, arrogant – you know what I’m saying?

He grew up is what you are saying. Now he’s got balls.

Last night, this was a great game he played. This is what I am saying.

He used to be just this hairball. Now he grew up. Now he’s a person.

To which, Foster Wallace then footnotes:

Agassi’s 1995 cybercrewcut, black sneakers, and weird new French-Restistance-fighter style shirts, at this year’s Open, have made him far more popular with male fans and only slightly less fascinatingly sexy for female fans. (Agassi’s sex-symbolism’s a phenomenon of deep mystery to most of the males I know, since we agree that we can all see clearly that Agassi’s actually a runty, squishy-faced guy with a weird shaped skull [which the crewcut’s now made even more conspicuous] and the tiny-strided pigeon-toed walk of a schoolkid whose underwear’s ridden up; and it remains completely inexplicable to us, Agassi’s pull and hold on women).

In one fabulous go, the writer’s post-modern vision has bonded a Lebanese bus driver, a cigar-chewing Yankee, and a literary giant: and all for a love of the game. Agassi is implicit in the act. In his acclaimed bestselling biography titled, ‘Open’ (Knopf, 2009) he speaks of “recognising the polar opposites within yourself, and if you cannot embrace them, at least accept them, and move on”. By referencing the existential dilemma made famous by writers, Albert Camus and John Paul Sartre, Agassi goes even further appearing to be modern and post-modern in one gulp.

Agassi has strayed and not strayed. He has played by the rulebook. Personal deviation and transformation is allowed, on condition, virtue is the ultimate goal. Sport thrives because it demands only one Commandment: if the rules and scoring are fair and reasonable: never cheat. Which is why the sports hero is expected to remain the same forever. Poor Lance Armstrong has sunk below the line. He is now stuck in purgatory with no way out. According to the conventions of sport, he is a disgrace, ancient history.

In one way or another, sports heroes often struggle with a Faustian dilemma. Above temptation, their reputations are required as symbols of progress. This symbol and the modernist enterprise work in tandem, even though the enterprise itself maybe heading into unchartered terrain and darker times.

I grew up in the Latrobe Valley brown coal and power station region of Gippsland, located in the southeast corner of the Australian continent. Men, like my dad, came to the region to dredge for the fossil fuel in open cut mines. The brown coal, dug up not far below the earth’s surface was transported and fed the furnaces firing giant electric generators. In a verdant hinterland, he and many of his ilk, adopted mechanical progress within their thoughts and souls. For aspiration and recreational pleasure, playing fields also began dotting the Valley’s landscape. Even as a youngster I could tell the modernist enterprise gave unequivocal benefits to sporting prowess no other class of citizen enjoys. Among my peers, I was never left behind when the games were on. I never felt bored and never distracted from my purpose of being best at sport. First pick, yet I kept experiencing loneliness. Even at such a young age I thought intensely about sport, but had no means of expressing it. I was curious, but hardly read beyond the back page of the Sun News Pictorial.

What makes someone good at sport? I could see that mum had natural sporting talent. It was in the bending of her knees, waving of her arms, her stout positioning. When she talked about sport it was mostly about patterns and colours. She won some local tournaments playing tennis, table tennis, and later lawn bowls. It was fun watching her compete against the best women players of the district, and even men. While not generally the winner, she was always difficult to defeat. During my teenage years and early adulthood, mum spent long periods of time in mental institutions, or bedridden in a darkened backroom on the veranda of our home in Moe. Even so, from my birth to her death in 1981, we had never lost each other. Our mutual love of sport was always part of our cottoning on.

Recovery is important.

Sport is adorned with adages, maxims, proverbs, aphorisms, platitudes, clichés, shibboleths, slogans, motivation speeches and a glut of veteran opinion. The sports sciences such as nutrition, biomechanics, psychology and tactics, have become excessively detailed, but are seldom linked.

Typically, sport is generally referred to as just sport, or pigeonholed in compartments, or as a type of war without guns, or an opiate for the masses controlled by spurious characters and organisations, and so on. If a coach or commentator proclaims something like: “It’s not about never failing, it’s about getting up every time you have fallen”. But this is merely a slogan and adds little to a relational understanding of how sport is played.

In this restricted world expert analysis and veteran opinion prevail. ‘PowerPoint’ is the new head coach. There is no room for proper diagnostics and forensics because each of these two disciplines hinge upon holding a theory of some sorts.

Sporting contests are remarkable for the number of mandated stops and tempo modulations that occur between start and finish. What happens after a score is registered and the play resumes? The quality performers are better at reading the cues; better at adjusting to variables and anticipating what comes next; knowing when to take a breath and when to strike. They have a capacity to go again while still maintaining a high level of quality execution. The process cannot always be described. Magic is often enough. My version of sports theory tries to draw links and produce evidence, up to a point, and leave the rest to chance and allurement.

Why sport matters is because it offers containment in the form of beginning, middle, end, and next time. Where does the modern endeavour end? Giant dredges gnaw at the Latrobe Valley without ever stopping. The movement is constant. There are no breaks in play.

The Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) thrive in my homeland. It is a native of south-eastern Australia. It grows from six to twelve metres high, prefers deeper soils, likes rainfall and is common in tall forests and the pockets of rainforest in the hinterland. The foliage is dull green with gumleaf-like phyllodes. Pale yellowish-green flowers appear in late winter and early spring. It is a hardy tree and can withstand dry periods and tolerate heavy clay. Its trunk and branches are blackish, like fossil wood.

How the Latrobe Valley was transformed into a fuel tank is important to me.

The Blackwood tree has survived the industrial ordeal, flourishing along the sides of creeks, country roads and sections of the main highways. Between Drouin and Warragul, approaching the Latrobe Valley along the Princes Highway, dense Blackwood foliage forms a compelling display. They are still prolific along the Narracan Creek as it tumbles through the hill country south of Moe, skirting the town, before entering the main drainage system of central Gippsland.

Even in somber light the dense green Blackwood foliage can emit a low sheen. It is an ideal specimen for roadsides and to me a homecoming. I can sense a taste of flesh and passion held within the underneath layers of brown fossil fuel. There is no deity I can recognize. It is the hinterland, power generation stations, and playing fields I am familiar with.

Or as Foster Wallace describes it: Both Flesh and Not. 

In his essay review, The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, he says of the novel’s narrator; “And Kate is indeed lonely,” and that loneliness is conveyed by her continual reference to, “deep-nonsensical facts.” After attending an art gallery opening, she relates:

One of those things people generally admire about Rubens, even though they were not fully aware of it, was the way everybody in his paintings was always touching everybody else; Later I masturbated…

To which Foster Wallace then adds – Though for me the most effecting rendition of her situation is Kate’s funnysad descriptions of trying to play tennis without a partner, with a footnote: plus continual references to bunches of tennis balls bouncing all over the place made me realize tennis balls are about the best macroscopic symbol there is for the flux of atomistic fact…

The narrative structure and back story are similar to tennis legends such as John McEnroe with a mike in hand on the television set, describing the game while churning through detail; except in the Foster Wallace account he traverses across another dimension.

Where does this all come from? Why tennis? Let’s begin with the basics.

Tennis belongs to one of five sport categories – bat and ball – as does baseball, cricket, table tennis, badminton, squash, and several others of this nature.[1]

If Hollywood is a guide, there is a special affection for bat and ball, and especially tennis and baseball as subject or highlight. As popular entertainments, both film and modern sports grew rapidly as a result of the modernist enterprise, fuelled by technological advances, standardization, marketing nous, and the arrival of daily newspaper and periodicals hungry for content.

In the case of tennis, according to Wikipedia, in 1873 the entrepreneur Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, ‘deserves much of the credit for the development of modern tennis. He produced a boxed set, which included a net, poles, rackets, balls for playing the game — and most importantly you had his rules. He was absolutely terrific at marketing and he sent his game all over the world. He had very good connections with the clergy, the law profession, and the aristocracy and he sent thousands of sets out in the first year or so, in 1874.’

The first Wimbledon tournament was staged in 1887 and the first U.S. National Men’s Singles Championship (now the US Open) soon followed in 1881. Both tournaments were quick to adopt Wingfield’s rules, which have remained mostly unchanged. The staging principles of tennis follow the golden rules of theatre and cinema palaces – there is room for a dress circle and room for the populace. Each stratum is hungry for content. They want to know what to see, what to expect, schedules, where to go, and the results, which produces a constant babble that feeds even more talk and images. The advent of telegraphic services, daily newspapers, and public transport and amenities provided the means for this to happen.[2]

Fascinating, yes, but this does not explain the love and emotion, which I am certain stem from the simple hand holding of an artifact plus gamesmanship. At the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey two tribes of humanlike apes are shrieking and jumping about. An arm stretches upwards towards the sky holding a bone object and releases it as in a modern tennis service action.

Whether it be reaching for a bone to strike and kill, or film characters reaching for a gun, a cigarette, a piece of gum, a mobile phone – an object in hand is a prolific image throughout films. Except in sport the codified rules say there can be no killing and in nearly all codes overt gruesomeness is frowned upon. The appeal of sport is via primal origins and civilizing effects. The bat and ball category fit these criteria, and the number of sports featuring some form of artifact or apparatus outnumbers those based on pure athletics.

And sex has also something to do with it and growing up in your homeland.

In my boyhood years I was more in-tune with our national tennis and sporting heritage, more so than stories about the colonial settlement of Australia and the wars our country had fought. Following the telecasting of the 1956 Olympics staged in Melbourne, television sets started appearing everywhere. American shows like, Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy were the favourites. Davis Cup tennis battles between Australia v United States and any games featuring Australian v American players were viewing highlights. While I grew up in a far-flung pocket of the world, glued to sport and watching television, I never felt hick.

I could watch the Wizard Of Oz and knew about tornados. Because of what my junior football coaches kept saying, I could see the film was about playing the game with all your heart, be smart and courageous and you will come up trumps. I could play tennis as good as most kids in the Midwest. And watched the cowboy movies (Hopalong Cassidy was the favourite). White hats. Black hats. It was obvious which team you wanted to be on.

I lapped up any information I could get about our own tennis stars Lew Hoad, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Margaret Court, and reckoned knew just as much about the American stars such Pancho Gonzales, Jack Kramer, and Tony Trabert and how Australia had won nearly as many Davis Cups as the Yanks and bragged to anyone who would listen about how we would soon be number one.

My subsequent study of sport and theory said Australia’s tennis success at the time was due high participation rates being for both genders and all ages. Tennis was reasonably open to all classes. Regional tournaments were often played in the bigger cities and when the winning players returned to farms and towns they were recognized as district heroes. Architecture and town planning had played its role. Tennis courts located beside church buildings and within well-defined community centres became precincts serving a purpose similar to the village squares of Europe – common ground where all classes could meet. Local and civic engagement was an important factor in tennis’ ascendancy.

I have often wondered how many courtships occurred meeting at civic and church locations? Was it different to anywhere else? Is it different now? As a boy I liked the convivial and socially mixed atmosphere of playing tennis, from memory, representing Church Of England Junior Gold in the local combined Junior and Senior competitions. Girls were difficult beings. In modern Australia tennis and cinema matinees were notable places for florid thoughts. The cinema had darker and more private allusions, while mixing with girls at tennis seemed a little more comforting and accepted. It was played in the open and even a youngster could see the adults were also at play in more ways than tennis. They seemed nonchalant as to what we were up to. According to my brother’s mates, the difference between going to the movies and playing tennis was petting compared to flirting.

Or as Nietzsche was fond of saying: amore fati.

While he famously declared God is dead and had speculated on the type of festivalslikely to fill the vacuum, he did not anticipate sport, but may have come close.

Contemporary writer Martin Leet describes how Nietzsche’s love of music led to a friendship and collaboration with the German composer Richard Wagner. ‘Both men pondered the central problem of their time, the conflict between the spirit of critical dissection and the spirit of aesthetic creativity. They viewed the growing predominance of analytical criticism in European culture as a sign of degeneration and decadence.’ However, according to Leet the relationship deteriorated as Wagner’s aesthetic purity led to a megalomaniac obsession to establish his own Temple of Art, at Bayreuth.  On the other hand, Nietzsche recognised the false grandeur and implied illusions of this outlook. He began to see science as a breath of fresh air in a religious and superstitious age. He sided with enquiry and spread his wings. Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Many of his thoughts have since been translated into modern sports:

Without rigorous training, nothing of any worth could be achieved.

To devote oneself to a vocation implied missing out on many other opportunities and pleasures.

The art of living required a long conditioning of the instincts to produce a decent human being.

During the past year I had 118 serious nervous-attack days. Lovely statistic!

Leet credits Nietzsche’s central maxim as amore fati, or love of fate.

Following Roger Federer’s victory in the quarter final of 2005 French Tennis Open and his semi-final pairing against Spain’s 19-year-old champion Rafael Nadel in the semi-final of the Australian Open 2006, the 23 year old Swiss player declared to the media gallery that he still had petrol in the tank. A sporting headline predicted he had more ‘fuel to burn’.

Perhaps, but Nadel won the semi-final three sets to two.

Amore fati.

Tennis runs in the veins of David Foster Wallace and as a junior says he was “fourth in the state of Illinois, and around one hundredth in the nation,” but then fate was not so kind. His game did not progress much further; and in adulthood, after reported bouts of depression and medications, and despite his growing international acclaim as a writer of fiction and essayist (including his thrilling and insightful comments on tennis and sports theory), at the age of 39, he hanged himself.

His essays on tennis are landmarks in sports theory.

Even as a junior player, Foster Wallace’s power of observation and expression allow him to understand and exploit advanced principles of home advantage effects.

As a boy living in a “proud part” of America that is flat, prone to constant winds, and what “meteorologists call Tornado Alley,” he could beat the other more naturally gifted boys because he could:

Play the whole court…

I was at my best in bad conditions…

Midwestern life is informed and deformed by wind…

Nobody I knew in Philo combed his hair because why bother…

Because the land seems so even, designers of clubs and parks rarely bother to roll it flat before laying the asphalt for tennis courts. The result is usually a slight list that only a player who spends a lot of time on the courts will notice…

I liked the sharp intercourse of straight lines more than other kids I grew up with…

Acceptance is its own verve, and it takes imagination for a player to like wind, and I liked wind…

In his natural habitat, he is able to beat more talented players. When he then travels to play in tournaments at major regional tennis venues, where the courts are better groomed and feature wind protection barriers, his special gift for trigonometry and reading the environment is not so great.

But calculus still matters and no player can progress to an elite level without it. Foster Wallace had it too. Prodigiously so and as a boy, early on saw he was not equipped to become a tennis-pro; while also sensing his destiny as a writer of genius, and how lonely, and alien that can be and how puberty also intervened…

Midwest junior tennis was my early initiation into true adult sadness…My betrayal came around fifteen, when so many of these single minded flailing boys became abruptly mannish and tall…My fifteenth summer, kids I’d been beating easily the year before all of a sudden seemed overpowering…The other boys sensed something was up with me, smelled some breakdown in the odd détente I’d had with the elements.

He concludes the essay with an enthralling description of his only boyhood encounter with a tornado, which is described as unexpected, frightening, and funny-sad.Physically, he escaped relatively unscathed. However, the image of an inexplicable and dangerous black cloud did not go away, tormenting him until his death.

I recall my boyhood in Gippsland as an existential flipside to Foster Wallace’s Midwest experiences.

The gift for observation and smart quips sets him aside. He sees differently to other boys. And he is a handy junior tennis player, more so because of a sharpness of mind. A love of tennis provides him with some normalcy in the turmoil of growing up. As the tennis connection falters, he felt alone, isolated – a prodigious thinker, observer, and writing prodigy with no other place to go.

Pre-puberty, for my age I was easily the best at sport as far as could be seen around me.

I was first picked in any of the regulation school sports such as football, athletics, tennis, and cricket and even the informal kind such as poison ball and tag, and often first or second pick in any games featuring older kids.

Everything seemed to fit in place, yet there was a growing sense of estrangement. Approaching puberty may have been part of it, but afterwards, I emerged even better at sport. By the age of 16, I was competing nationally and with the world’s best water skiers and excelling against the region’s best senior exponents of football.

Officials and recruitment officers came knocking at the door. Trophies and ribbons filled the home mantelpiece.

Still, something seemed amiss. Frustrations brewed within. Perhaps it was learning that being fettered does not remedy estrangement. Beyond my obvious sporting prowess, I was rarely asked to talk much. Without reading or completing school assignments, I was easily passed to higher grades. And perhaps the feelings of alienation were compounded because in sport I had accepted the axiom of never showing your weakness to an opponent. Yet it troubled me that I was slow in the mind and good at sport. I could obviously run and kick, but was not expected to think. I had to find out if I could do both.

Retirement, early or later, is a career precondition of an elite athlete. As a famed writer and as darkness descended, David Foster Wallace did not have the means to turn off the tap and found little else holding things together and suicided aged 39. By 21 years of age I’d had enough of sport and was ready for something else. Instinctively, I knew there was the chance of returning to the subject of sport. The existential dilemma he and all of us face is being special at something, while still being able to manage and accept all the rest on a more intimate scale.

Amore fati. 

[1] The other four categories including selected examples are invasion sports (all football codes, hockey and ice hockey, basketball, polo and water polo), measurement (athletics, golf, swimming, cycling, horse and motor racing), adjudication (gymnastics, diving, figure skating, synchronized swimming), and combined (boxing because it features invasion and adjudication scoring, and ski jumping featuring measurement and adjudication).

Comments

Max Thomas

Max Thomas

The Blackwood is a ‘pioneer’ species; it is one of the first to colonize – it does not invade – ground damaged by extreme events, natural or otherwise. More than framing the scenery, often from the most select of positions, the Blackwood tree shares mutual symbiotic activities with other organisms underground. And it transcends its own mortality but leaves much for the benefit of others to come. Beautiful and durable things may be rendered from the Blackwood but only if it is taken down in its prime. “Where old men plant trees and know they will not enjoy their fruit or sit in their shade, civilization has taken root in that place.” (Greek proverb).

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