The Attraction of Tennis? It's Smarter than your sport!

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IDecember 23, 2008

With the Christmas holiday approaching, there’s been a little more time to mull over those ideas that drift around the brain on the daily commute. This one has been ripening for a little while and is, I think, just about ready to crack open.

A bit provocative, maybe. A little biased, certainly. An excuse to talk about a singularly attractive combination (to this woman, at least), without doubt. So try this: Do you need more highly developed grey cells to be a great tennis player than to excel at any other sport?

Let me clarify that “attractive combination” first. Physical athleticism, sportsmanship (as opposed to gamesmanship), preferably a decent helping of elegance, these all play a part. But it’s that extra component that binds it all together, like egg yolk whisked into a perfect mayonnaise: brainpower.

Let’s start with the structure of the tennis match.

It is uniquely gladiatorial, one opponent against another, for upwards of four hours, during which players are dependent entirely on their own resources to maintain concentration, focus, pace, and tactics. There is neither coach nor trainer, and there are no teammates (I’m discussing the singles format for the purposes of this argument) with whom to get some perspective, some objectivity, or some review of play.

It takes a singularly strong and determined mind to handle this kind of combat, for this length of time, through good points and bad, in front of baying crowds or in hushed silence.

Then factor in the speed of the sport, the reaction times, the split-second decision-making not just once, but usually for several shots in succession. Without lightening-fast anticipation, response and action, the point, the game, and the match are over. The synapses have to fire in overdrive.

As if that were not enough, the brain has to factor in angles of trajectory in 3-D, visualize where that trajectory will take a missile traveling at up to 100 mph, and approach that missile with enough time to return it over a barrier of almost a metre’s height.

And that return may well be taken metres wide and long of the target rectangle on the other side of the net.

From geometry to physics. The spin on the ball might make it swerve towards the body or away from it, may describe a parabola or a flat arc as it bounces, depending on how the opponent whipped the ball at the point of impact.

Those swerves and bounces will vary on any given day according to temperature (very hot in Australia, for example, but quite temperate in London); humidity (with huge variance between indoors and outdoors, China and the United States); and the playing surface (greasy grass, crisp carpet, slippery clay).

The balls themselves may perform in different ways according to the environment. Has it rained recently? The balls may be a little heavier. Is it hot and dry? They may move faster and truer.

The more I think about all the variables, the more I’m surprised these athletes can maintain even the semblance of a playing rhythm.

Like all elite sportsmen and women, they also excel at the physical stuff—training, conditioning, diet, scheduling, practising. They work at the psychology—the bit that determines why they want to walk onto court first or make their opponent wait for the coin toss.

And taking psychology seriously can help build up resilience in the face of adversity or intimidation: the distraction of poor line calls, ill behaviour, or unreturnable serves. So we come full circle, returning to the mental strength and confidence that this solitary game demands.

So many components, plaited together in a multi-coloured strand that is stronger then the separate threads. But the most mentally demanding of sports? This is where I’ll get shot down in flames, but here goes.

First up, that dependence on one’s own mental resources for an entire match. This precludes all team games. No matter how skilled the individuals in the squad, how astute their tactics and reading of the game, what leadership qualities they exhibit, they can always afford a rough patch, a sluggish phase, a few mistakes where others can take up the baton.

So there is always support, reassurance, someone to hug, pat on the back and, I think I’m right, team games always involve some official break in play where the coach can adjust the tactics, the players’ positions, generally provide feedback on what is and isn’t working. The tennis player sits alone on that chair and processes the entire game internally.

And team sports have a time limit—the closer to the finish line you get, the harder it is for the opposition to catch up, the easier it is to mark time, back pedal. There is the penalty shoot out, the last-minute try, the final drop shot—but overall, this cannot match the sustained pressure of having to win the last point in a set number of games, in every match, in every tournament in order to succeed.

Focus, concentration, self-belief, and the bringing together of all the technical skills are essential if the tennis player is to win.

Second for the chop: I discard (much as I love their explosive, race-to-the-line exhilaration) sports that depend simply on being the fastest, highest, biggest—track and field, swimming, cycling, and skiing fall into this category.

Of course, these athletes probably have the ultimate training regimes and the most finely tuned and fit-for-purpose physiques. The javelin thrower will work constantly to refine technique, the 1,500-metre runner will work out race tactics, and the sprint cyclist will be able to calculate acceleration, distance and angle of attack in the velodrome. But tennis brings all these elements and much more to the winning of a match.

Third, I reject any sport that does not require athletic fitness. The definition then becomes "game." Snooker demands quite remarkable mathematical interpretation of angles, speed, and spin, together with extraordinary control of cue acquired only with intense practice and concentration. But it does not require physical endurance, speed, or power.

So to a sport with which tennis—or its greatest exponent—is often compared. Golf requires focus and concentration over a sustained period. It requires superb hand-eye co-ordination, calculation of impact, flight, direction, and slice.

Tennis players require the same skills, but calculated several times a minute against a moving, rather than a stationery, ball, while running flat out. The argument for golf is lost right there.

Another player who faces their opponent—indeed an entire team—with a "weapon" is the cricket batsman. He makes rapid calculations as the ball rockets in and bounces off an unpredictable surface, spinning and intimidating.

He (or she—this is not intended to be a sexist debate) has stumps and body to protect, and runs to score against several pairs of outstretched hands. But there are 10 more batters who can make those runs if he fails. It is even possible to draw the match rather than win or lose. In tennis, if you have any weakness, any lapse of concentration, you lose.

So in the brainpower stakes, I think tennis has it. Uniquely blending the strengths of body and brain, it challenges with its scoring system, its variety of environment and playing surface, its speed of action and reaction, and judgement of flight and angle. Even other racket sports don’t test the individual over such a long time span or in such varying conditions.

Brainpower does not necessarily equate to intellect, of course. What is more, not all tennis players have it, while plenty of athletes in other sports do. But I propose that  brainpower is a more important factor in reaching the top of tennis than any other sports.

So that’s my excuse for finding tennis the most compelling of sports, and its greatest exponents the most compelling of athletes. It has nothing to do with the leggy, lean, supple physique and the intense—bordering on arrogant—focus, self-confidence, and self-awareness. That’s all in the mind!