The sports on the boil this week are tennis and it’s miniature table-bound counterpart—ping-pong.
In this series of the best and worst of sports, I have taken the argument to a new level of sophistication. The stakes have been raised. I have brought in an expert to prove why tennis outclasses ping-pong. It’s game, set and match.
Resident MC tennis fanatic and Assistant Professor of Writing/Communication Kim Trevathan walks us through the short and long on the tennis court, touching on his own personal game and the professional level to illustrate what makes people who are passionate about tennis really go mad for it.
Is tennis the greatest sport in the world?
“It’s the most difficult. There are other sports where you must hit a ball, like baseball and golf, but in tennis you actually have to move (fast and with precision) to hit the ball, and you have to deal with an infinite variety of shots coming at you from an infinite variety of opponents. Hitting the ball hard won’t accomplish much; there has to be power, control, and strategy. The best, like Roger Federer, plan points by hitting one shot to set up the next or maybe three shots down the line. Another difficulty arises from the accountability of the tennis player. Because it’s an individual sport, there’s nowhere to hide, no teammates to support you or to blame.
Because of the person-to-person confrontational nature of tennis, writer David Foster Wallace has compared it to boxing. As with most sports, you appreciate the complexity and difficulty of the pro game if you’ve played a bit. At the same time, in few other sports is there such a divide between the pro game and the weekend player’s skills, and it’s hard to realize this watching tennis on TV; you can only understand the pace, the spin, and the heaviness of pro shots if you see a match in person.
For professionals and amateurs, the mental part of the game requires the focus required to hit shot after shot into the court with power and precision, which can be debilitating. I have played against opponents who come apart at a bee buzzing around their head or a skateboarder doing stunts in the parking lot yards away. It’s sort of like golf in that way, but again, golf does not require the athleticism that tennis does. Golf and tennis share the stigma of being elitist, clubby sports. People think of them as country club sports where everyone is overly polite and there’s this rigid social strata. That still exists in some places, I guess; but not in the USTA leagues where I play. It’s not an expensive sport to play, and there are decent public courts everywhere now. In the early days, tennis was envisioned as a sport that could improve you overall as a person, and that’s where the sort of rigid rules about etiquette came to be. I don’t see all of that as a bad thing, though much has disappeared; for example, professionals don’t have to wear all white any more.”
What makes tennis so special for you?
“I’ve come to understand my identity as a player over the years. I’m what’s known as a grinder. I like to outlast people, and I never give up on a point or a match. At my level, sometimes you can beat players with more glamorous, powerful games if you are consistent and run down a lot of balls. Tennis like this suits my temperament. Another thing that makes it special: as in golf, hitting one shot well can make your day, fuel your motivation to play again and try to duplicate that shot many times.”
How do you feel tennis compares with ping ping? Is it criminal to speak of the two in the same breath?
“I like both sports, though I don’t play ping-pong as often. I like being outdoors and playing ping-pong outside is problematic. Ping-pong is more a game of quickness. There’s more wrist involved than in tennis, which requires many more shots, more movement and more strategy. Both are great sports. It hurts more to get hit by a tennis ball.”
How do you feel your tennis game has progressed as you have seasoned as an athlete? Have you had to change your game?
“When I started, in the seventies, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were the most famous players, and it was commonplace to see people emulate these two and completely lose it on court screaming and breaking rackets, even getting into fights, generally behaving badly. Just about everybody did this, including my mentors. Over the years, I’ve figured out that getting angry, particularly at one’s self, is not productive. I’m far from perfect at this, but I think I do a better job of staying positive, even though tennis is a game with frequent failure. Like just about any sport, you try to get into a zone, and being calm and focused helps you approach this sort of Zen-like state. Also, I’m just grateful I can still get out there and run around for two or three hours, however long it takes to win or to lose.”
Who would be your dream opponent?
“Dream opponent? It’s always a great thing to beat somebody who thinks he’s better than you and is a jerk about it.”
Who would be your dream doubles partner?
“Dream doubles partner? The Bryan brothers are and have been the best doubles team; it would be great to play with one of them. I have much to learn about doubles; I prefer singles.”
How do you see the future of tennis going in the United States?
“I’ll confess that on the professional level I don’t really care that much about how Americans do. It’s very much an international sport, and my favorite players to watch come from Switzerland and Spain. (Andy Murray’s pretty good, too.) On the participatory level, I think tennis is enjoying a bit of a resurgence in America, partly because of racket technology. I think it’s a great game, so it’s good to see young people learning the sport and enjoying it.”
Describe the game of tennis in 3 words?
“Better than soccer.”
Despite his rather deluded response to the final question, Trevathan really does put the pieces of the tennis puzzle together beautifully. It is a fabulous sport for old and young. Tennis is the ping-pong for the adventurous free spirit in us all. If you’re looking to take your ping-poing skills to the next level, add a new level of competition and an element of athleticism, then there is no contest. Simply trade your paddle in for a racket and hit the courts.