The Beautiful Game: Tennis Turns Sport Into Art

Marianne Bevis@@MarianneBevisSenior Writer INovember 12, 2009

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. How appropriate, then, that tennis has been giving pleasure to the world for centuries.

But what makes something as abstract as tennis such a thing of beauty? What are the splendid strands of color that, when intertwined, produce the rich and complex embroidery of what, after all, is just a sport?

The strongest and brightest threads, the essential fabric of the tapestry, are the athletes who ply their trade in the tennis limelight: the players themselves.

Ever since the cultural flowering of classical Greece, the beauty of the human form in action has been celebrated. Statues chiseled to muscular perfection more than two millennia ago mirror today’s flesh and blood bodies, honed to the same perfection in the pursuit of peak fitness.

For admirers of the human form, tennis holds one particular advantage. The complexity of the skills and attributes required to perform at this sport’s highest level allows players of many shapes, builds, and styles to flourish. Which means that, for the fans, there is something for everyone.

For every woman who admires the muscular biceps of Rafael Nadal, there is another who favors the angled shoulders of Roger Federer, or the lean frame of Novak Djokovic.

For every man who is drawn to the statuesque Maria Sharapova, another is drawn to the elegance of Ana Ivanovic, or the rangy Elena Dementieva.

Some prefer an in-your-face personality: Serena Williams, Robin Soderling, or Fernando Gonzalez. Others like their players serene and respectful: Bjorn Borg, Venus Williams, or James Blake.

But the appeal of tennis is far more than skin deep. It combines many finer strands from many art forms that, woven together, make it a uniquely strong, complex, and beautiful sport.

At the heart of great drama is individual conflict or quest, and the most compelling drama uses plot and character to advance an emotional or physical journey.

So imagine the tennis court as the setting for a play or a film, and watch the players take to their stage for an opening performance.

The dramatis personae have to maintain concentration, focus, energy, and tactics in the face of constant challenge. They have to win the last point, regardless of the number of games, or sets, or hours that have passed. They have to repeat their all-out effort in every match, at every tournament.

It is a uniquely gladiatorial contest, one opponent against another, each entirely dependent on their own strengths. And because of tennis’ special scoring system, there is no time limit, no draw, no “point of no return.” It’s like the labors of Hercules, with each drama unfolding before an audience of thousands.

Compare the downcast face of Andy Roddick after 77 games on the stage of Wimbledon with the roaring triumph of Federer at Roland Garros.

Watch the anguish on Dinara Safina’s face as she retires in pain from the biggest tournament of the year.

Look at the swaggering, aggressive strut of Nadal, and imagine the glower of Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius: both ready to take on the world at whatever cost.

From drama to another performing art: dance.

How many sports require the constant movement, footwork, and balance of ballet? Which of them requires stillness one moment, explosive reaction, then precise poise the next?

One shot may demand a soaring reach, the next may force a deep bend. A sweeping off-forehand pivots the body on a sixpence, a cross-court double-fister can twist the body like a spiral. A Sampras-type slam dunk is the equivalent of a Nureyev changement.

Quite simply, watch the counterbalancing arm of Federer or Amelie Mauresmo during a single-handed slice, and it could belong to Fred or Ginger.

The beauty of tennis’ three-dimensional athletes also translates with ease into the two-dimensional images of the world’s great artworks.

The flexing and pointing limbs of Pat Rafter and Evonne Goolagong recall the swirling, curving lines of Matisse’s many dance paintings.

The rich colors of skin and fabric embodied by Venus Williams or Fernando Verdasco out-glow the jewel-like oils of Gauguin’s Tahiti.

The bodies of Steffi Graf and Feliciano Lopez fit da Vinci’s representation of perfect proportion—the Vitruvian Man captured in his cage of circle and square.

Geometry describes an entirely different kind of beauty that extends beyond the confines of the players themselves. This most visual of the mathematical sciences is intrinsic to match play.

Tennis demands a quite remarkable interpretation of angles, speed, and spin, achieved with extraordinary control of a racket head. So the brain has to analyse a ball’s trajectory, visualize where that trajectory will take the 100 m.p.h. missile, and then time the reaction to a micro-second.

The spin on the ball might make it swerve towards the body, or away from it, and may describe a parabola, or a flat arc as it bounces. And the flight itself will be influenced by the very environment: temperature, humidity, playing surface.

All these calculations require the analytical power and precision of snooker, the hand-eye coordination of a juggler, and the ability to act and react to the varying assault of an opponent.

This mathematical beauty decorates the tennis tapestry like a fine silver thread. It also illustrates another essential element in any love affair, the ultimate erogenous zone: the brain.

The very best players are top-notch athletes, have the touch of a painter, the bravado of a performer, and the nimbleness of a dancer.

But they also have split-second decision-making, lightening-fast anticipation, endless resilience and self-belief, and the tactical brain of a chess master.

This endlessly compelling sport intertwines the cerebral, the physical, and the dramatic into an infinitely varied, and complex embroidery.

It is, surely, the most beautiful game of all.

Dedicated to LJS, with thanks for his support and friendship.