I am not a sportsperson. Many of my closest friends consider me “the sporty one” because I exercise daily and competed in four years of college athletics, but my college teammates, who can sustain the topic of Calvin Johnson for miles, would be quick to identify me as the guy who asks how many teams are in the World Series, who picks Drew Brees for his fantasy team because he is Ellen’s favorite player, and who already name-dropped the only athlete he knows from a Michigan pro sports team earlier this sentence. However, there is one sport I could fill an entire marathon talking about: tennis.
While most sportspeople view January as NFL post-season, for me it means watching the Australian Open like a part-time job, and I’m going to celebrate my current sportspersonhood in the most sportsperson way possible: by vehemently arguing that the sportsthings I support are better than the sportsthings you support with as little research and as many superlatives as possible!
Regardless of extraneous research, however, it’s impossible to argue that any sport integrates athleticism and aesthetics more seamlessly than tennis. From a purely physical stand-point, tennis has it all: running, jumping, projectile objects hurtling upwards of 130mph, and shots called “smashes.” Players frequently run up to five kilometers in a single match, endure triple-digit on-court temperatures, and play matches lasting longer than it takes most pro marathoners to tick off 26.2 miles, all without coaching or substitutions. The longest match in tennis history between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut actually sprawled for eleven hours and five minutes over the course of three days. Makes one hour seem pretty manageable, eh football?
However, the players rarely betray any sign of strain as they sprint, flit, and slide across the court with ballet dancer poise. For example, go to YouTube right now, type in “Roger Federer slow motion serve,” and watch his dark hair ripple around his Easter Island head stoicism as he hammers a ball perfectly into the sideline. Or, look up any outfit Serena Williams has worn in the past five years (currently, she’s opting for a yolk-yellow crop-top and pleated skirt combo), because like her, tennis always manages to couple raw strength with calculated elegance in fearful and wonderful ways.
But that isn’t all tennis brings together. In fact, one of the most endearing aspects of the sport is its diversity. While it can be viewed as a ritzy country club diversion, tennis actually boasts one of the most assorted playerdoms of any sport. For example, in a US Open qualifying round last year, fifteen-year-old CiCi Bellis faced off against forty-four-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm. Care to match that age gap, NBA?
Or, hockey, can you tell me where else I can find a sport where a match between two black women becomes the marquee event of the tournament and garners record-breaking ratings? Yeah. That’s what I thought.
And by the way, can any other sport out there offer me an experience where women and men are addressed side-by-side and with equal enthusiasm? One of my favorite parts of watching tennis Grand Slams is that men and women are not only covered equally but potpourried together into a single night of coverage. Finally, female sportscasters don’t feel like token minorities, and an appreciation for general human athleticism wins out.
And tennis crosses not only gender lines but borders and oceans as well, drawing athletes from every inhabitable continent into a competition that transcends nationality. In fact, it is common practice for players from opposite hemispheres, generations, and genders to team up for doubles in what I see as the embodiment of the ideals of sport.
And finally, in tennis I feel that I truly get to know the athletes as people. In a sport where spectator to player ratios can reach 10,000:1, players don’t have teams to huddle behind, coaches to consult, or substitutes to relieve them. Every grunt is audible, each wince is visible, and no movement goes unnoticed, so that players are not just another jersey, but individuals completing with unique style and personality. From Novak Djokovic chatting with ball boys to Caroline Wozniacki sneaking into other athletes’ press conferences to Jack Sock correcting an official’s call in his opponent’s favor, players become people that I feel like I know and cheer for or against based not on their shirt color or nationality, but on their identity as a competitor.
It is this individuality that makes tennis the most brutal and compelling sport on television. There is something gladiatorial about watching two players march onto the court before a roaring, royalty-studded crowd and knowing that only one will prevail. But there is also something comforting about remembering that at the end of the match, they will shake hands and walk off the court together.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.