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On watching tennis, or beating against the boundary

February 20, 2016


The last few years I’ve watched more and more tennis. I’ve mentioned this before, probably many times before. Anyway, much of this rise in my attention to a sport I previously ignored is due to my wife, Gillian. Tennis is her favorite sport to watch. We also play each other with some frequency, although, because she’s four and a half months pregnant, we haven’t played in some time. The reason I think both of us enjoy tennis so much is that even though we each have particular players we pull for, the fluidity of the sport demands and allows for supporting quality play more than a particular player. In other words, you root for the long, creative point over the short, decisive point. You root for order that frays into chaos and not sudden trauma.


A month or so back, the Australian Open provided plenty of these slow, playful grinds. A five-set match between the usuallystellar Stan Wawrinka and the upstart Milos Raonic was perhaps my favorite match of the year’s first Grand Slam. I wrote about it at The Classical. I also enjoyed those matches blessed with the presence of the forever flexible Gael Monfils. Still, as always, the points and horrors suffered by Andy Murray intrigued me most.

Andy Murray runs into Novak Djokovic, again. 
The January 18th issue of The New Yorker ran an article by Tad Friend about the struggle to remain a relevant squash player in one’s later years. Or, maybe Friend didn’t write so much about the struggle to remain relevant as he did about the desire to simply play a game with quality. One of the more memorable passages in his “Holding the T” is when he writes on the unfettered emotions that take flight in moments of intense competition:

If you love a demanding task, one that requires both discipline and talent—shooting hoops, playing drums, writing code—you eventually discover an innate boundary: you can apprehend real virtuosity, especially as it’s used to best you, but you can’t quite incorporate it. You will never be more than almost-great. The same wistfulness I now felt also crossed Will’s face when he recalled winning a single point against the great Jahangir Khan, and Richard Chin’s face when he recounted his brief match with Ramy Ashour, the standout of the past decade. Yet the truly great players sacrifice so much that they stare back at us with equal longing. Or so we console ourselves as we batter against the boundary, moths outside a screen door, fluttering toward the light.

When Andy Murray lost to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open’s final, not only did he and every other competitor whose tournament ended with a loss appear as fragile as a moth, but the boundary became something more than a net or a screen. Until further notice, Novak Djokovic is the barrier between the field and the light.

These walls can dance.
To have a living barrier is not new to tennis. On the women’s side Serena Williams is this obstacle. Everything and everyone in the game must pass through her. The task is not impossible, but its accomplishment is rare. Germany’s Angelique Kerber did manage to defeat Williams in Melbourne, and she did so by extending the point. She stayed in the game, and Serena faded and frayed as slowly as a flag in the sun and the wind. The victory lacked the power and violence of the epic. Instead, it arrived with the monotonous ability to endure.

The competitor who endured the best against Djokovic was France’s Giles Simon in the fourth round. He lost in five sets, but his willingness to “batter against boundary” was admirable. After all, only in the battering do we find ourselves in the rush of the living.


Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.     

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