May 19, 2014

Game, set, match: Why tennis is the best sport

Setting aside that this whole “Best Sport” debate is ridiculous, and also setting aside that soccer is obviously the best sport (no event centered on one game brings together the entire globe like the World Cup—it’s that simple), let me start my own plug for tennis as (kind of) the best sport by trashing the articles that came before mine. Not to name any names, but Sam Zacher’s column (“Points In The Paint: Why Basketball Is The Best Sport,” 5/1/14), which is complete with a photo of a slack-jawed Dirk Nowitzki, makes the grave error of arguing that basketball is best because it “combines the ideal amount of necessary raw physical attributes—height, strength, speed, agility, power, etc.—with the necessary skills—shooting, dribbling, passing, etc.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down there, tiger. Last I checked, if you’ve got the height, you can play professional basketball. There’s no need to be particularly strong, fast, agile, powerful, good at shooting, dribbling, or passing. If you’re tall enough, you move at least slightly quicker than the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and you can stand for 10 consecutive minutes, you can play in the NBA. Case in point: His freshman year in college, Roy Hibbert couldn’t do a push-up. Now he is (or at least was until recently) one of the best centers in the NBA. No sport favors one God-given attribute more than basketball favors height, so Sammy’s “multifarious skills” argument is utter malarkey.

But at least basketball is a watchable sport. The same can’t be said for baseball, the sport—again, not naming names—Sarah Langs argued was the best sport in her piece (“Here Comes The Pitch: Why Baseball’s The Best Sport,” 5/15/14). It’s an article that opens by arguing that baseball is better than football because it’s less complicated, but better than basketball because it’s more complicated. But there’s no Goldilocks in baseball; there are too many sports to even entertain the notion that one is “juuuuust right.”

But these are passing gripes, trivial logical fallacies, especially rotten spots in fully putrid apples. No, the greater issue with my fellow editors’ arguments is the structures of their arguments and the premise that underpins them. These articles are litanies. They are largely lists of reasons that one sport is more exciting, impressive, accessible, fun. But therein lies the error. People have inherently different preferences, and therefore every person will tend to find a different sport more enjoyable. There is no most enjoyable sport, so the sport that’s objectively best is not going to be the one that is the “most fun.” To equate enjoyable with best is tomfoolery, because, as most athletes know, sports offer far more than fun.

I was not a very happy 13-year-old. I’d been pretty depressed since I was about nine, a privileged middle-class white kid angsting over existential dread he was just a little too young to handle. I didn’t have anything to hold onto, any passion, anything to work for. I’d played soccer and baseball when I was younger, but I’d quit them and hadn’t been getting much exercise the past couple years. I was a pudgy, uncoordinated, and slow child who was not going anywhere in particular.

And then my mother signed me up for a class at my friend’s tennis academy. I’d never really played before, but I thought I’d try it, since I generally liked games. I was hooked from the first ball I struck. I simply loved the feeling of the ball, the sweet “thwock” it made when I contacted it right. So I kept taking the class, and started private lessons shortly after that.

There was only one problem. I was still a pudgy, uncoordinated, slow, angsty kid with too much existential dread. But I had something I cared about now, something to hold onto. I worked hard to get better, and as I improved on the court, I also improved off it. I grew more tolerant of others, more relaxed, more skilled at dealing with stress, calmer, politer, more respecting of my elders, and more socially adept. I owe a lot to tennis. It’s been more than a game for a long time. It’s been my life.

But why does that make tennis best? Couldn’t that have happened with any sport? Perhaps. But, more so than almost any other game, tennis is a sport of mental challenges. I’ll let Andre Agassi make my point for me. As he wrote (or had ghost-written) in Open, one of the greatest sports autobiographies ever published, “Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer’s opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They’re inches away. In tennis you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement...”

Basically, tennis is the best because, a lot of the time, it sucks. Andre’s right: It’s lonely out there, and it’s depressing a lot of the time, and sometimes it’s scary. But those are the challenges that tennis players have to face, and those are the challenges that I had to face as a fat 13-year-old. And I’m glad that I did. Because if I’d played another sport—any other sport—I wouldn’t have been forced to improve myself as a person so much in order to succeed. It’s very difficult to be a good tennis player while also being impatient, weak-willed, short-tempered, easily flustered, or ignorant. Tennis demands hand-eye coordination, reflexes, flexibility, speed, anticipation, and craftiness. But every sport demands its own set of physical skills. What makes tennis different is the set of mental skills it demands. Tennis is a lonesome endeavor, one that demands that its players figure out how to win by themselves and deal with losing by themselves. After and during a loss there is nowhere to turn, no one to blame except yourself, and no one to ask for help, except yourself. Tennis makes us take responsibility for our errors and solve our own problems, and it makes us do it in solitary confinement, without support. Tennis players have to be more than gifted athletes: They have to be resilient people.

So yeah, basically, tennis sucks a lot of the time. But that’s why it’s the best sport.