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The toughest sport there is

By Ned Seaton

Last week in this space, the incomparable Bill Felber argued that golf was superior to tennis. Careful readers of The Mercury probably noted that he did so only after he announced his impending retirement and said nice things about his bosses here at the paper for the past 40-plus years.

Smart guy. See, we’re tennis players. And despite the lovely round of back-and-forth compliments, I just can’t let that sort of thing go unchallenged.

With all respect due to Bill and my other golfing friends — not to mention wrestling dads, baseball moms, tough-guy football coaches, swimmers, distance runners, martial arts geeks — tennis is the toughest sport there is. Period.

It combines the eye-hand coordination of baseball with the quickness and agility of basketball, the pure physical explosiveness of football with the touch and precision of golf. Let me amend that: A golfer can hit a stationary ball within 10 feet of a pin and call it a great shot; a tennis player has failed if he manages to run down a 135-mph serve but hits it a half-inch off target. Let all that sink in a minute. I am not arguing simply that tennis is better than golf. I am arguing that tennis is the toughest sport that exists.

Think about what Rafael Nadal did a week ago when he beat Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open. When he served, which he did 218 times, he did approximately the same thing a Major League Baseball pitcher does—throwing his entire body into an overhand heave, one of the most taxing physical maneuvers you could imagine. (Except pitchers get pulled from a game when their pitch-count tops 100, and they only pitch every fifth day.) Every individual shot Nadal hit from the baseline required explosive speed and strength to set up and execute, and hitting them to precise spots on the court required the delicate eye-hand skills of a surgeon. He did this for 4 hours, 47 minutes, meaning he sprinted, slid, reversed course, shuffled and leaped for longer than a marathon runner.

And none of that is really even the toughness I’m talking about.

What I want to talk about is related to this fact: Nadal did all that under the intense pressure of competing directly with another human being who was using all his physical and psychological weapons to defeat Nadal. And meanwhile, Nadal had to control the inevitable doubts, exasperation and fear that crept into his own head as he did all this. Having the eye-hand skills of a surgeon is one thing; having them when you’ve got the inevitable butterflies in your stomach is another.

The tough thing about tennis is that there are only two people on the court—you and the other guy, and only one can win. (Let’s set aside doubles from this discussion, even though it adds another layer of complexity.) You’re alone out there; there’s nowhere to hide. So there is enormous psychological strain, if you care about winning. And if you don’t care about winning, then what are you doing out there?

OK, this is where I need to make a concession to Bill: Golf can certainly be pleasant, walking (or tooling around in a cart) in the outdoors, admiring the scenery. You bet. I enjoy that, too. Tennis is generally played on concrete, and all the courts look the same. It’s not about the scenery.

I’m talking about competitive sports. I’m not talking about pleasant. Sure, there is such a thing as social tennis — it’s good exercise, and can be fun to do with friends. But at its heart, tennis is as ruthless as boxing or wrestling—you’re basically trying to beat the other guy into submission. Doubt me? Take the most extreme example on the other end of the spectrum: Watch a “social” mixed doubles match someday, and then tell me nobody cares about winning. Ha!

That, of course, is what sport is about. To paraphrase the great philosopher Bob Huggins: if they don’t care who wins and loses, then why do they have a scoreboard?

There’s a lot more here than you might think. Tennis uses a winner-take-all scoring system, so that adds to the competitive pressure. There’s no clock, so you can’t build a lead and then sit on it. You have to keep a level head, even while you try to ruthlessly clobber the other guy, which you simply have to do. You have to figure out what he doesn’t want to do, and force him to do it, while he’s trying to do the same to you. You have to decide whether to change strategies if you’re losing, and then react to his changes.

Coaching is not allowed in tennis, with some rather obscure exceptions. So you have to think through all this on your own, while you’re in the middle of doing it. There’s no caddy, even.

Look, I understand that golf is also difficult. I once threw my entire bag in the ravine on the 17th hole at the Manhattan Country Club because I muffed a shot. It’s tough, too. But it’s not as tough as tennis — physically or mentally. Nothing else comes close.

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