Monday, February 9, 2009

Zen and the giants of professional tennis

Tennis is the only sport I can bear to watch. It is is above all else about personality and individual combat. It's about two wills and skill sets pitted against each other in a fight to the metaphoric death. Therefore I'm not one of those tennis lovers who will watch any game with glee, valuing only the skill of the strokes. I have to happen upon a player with a personality that interests me and then I'll watch their every match. This year, in my intermittent televisual consumption of the Australian Open in Melbourne, one of those players was Jelena Dokic.

There is of course this young woman's sad history, the horrific parent and the baggage we sense she must carry. But what I love about Dokic is her dagginess. Regardless of success or the lack of it, some players are unerringly graceful, appearing to move effortlessly even as the sweat makes their soaking wet tops stick to their backs. Others move heavily, awkwardly, and seem to be exhausted by every point. Dokic is one of the latter. Even when approaching victory every one of her points is hard won. That she was defeated before the final was somehow fitting but not a denigration of her talents.

I loved her constant frown, the beratings she served herself after every error and the strange way she would appear to unfocus her eyes, staring emptily at the net, for a few moments before her foe was due to serve. She always refocused in plenty of time and I wondered if this momentary turn-off was some kind of mental break she had learned to give herself.

So what do I take from Dokic's stoicism? During the recent heat wave I found myself thinking of her determined frown and the way she wiped her forehead or blew on her fingers after losing a point. The way she just kept going while obviously at near exhaustion (having got into the Open on a wild card, she was not at peak fitness). I found myself comparing the struggle to keep sane, to keep working in the heat, with her doggedness. And I kept going.

The men's final, between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, was an example of two giant personalities at war, but there were other interesting undercurrents. A defeated Federer had to halt his post-match speech because he broke down and wept, a sad inversion of the tears of joy he shed after his Australian Open victory in 2006. The crowd were with him, reassuring him with their enthusiastic applause, loving him for being an emotionally open man who is able to show his feelings -- off the court rather than on it.

Professional tennis is a celebration of athleticism at its youthful peak, of bodily strength, endurance and skill. But interleaved with this is an autumnal process of diminishing powers that as spectators we have no choice but to observe. Every great player is bound to go downhill sooner or later as youth begins to fade.

Federer's skill is clearly still evident -- he's not number 2 for nothing -- and despite being older than Nadal, in theory he could have won that match if he'd made far fewer mistakes and kept his cool. But the odds were against him -- at 22 Nadal was younger and fitter, his impatient leg tapping before the first game a small indication of his restless energy.

I think the popularity of Andre Agassi in the last years of his professional career was due to his acceptance of the ageing process and the maturity and emotional intelligence he brought to the game. He was so clearly still in it because he loved tennis and his cool, focused demeanour suggested he had done the mental work necessary to give himself longevity. His Zen approach was evident at every lost point -- he simply let it go, even after bad calls, and marched back to the baseline, ready for the next point. He had overcome his ego and was willing to bear the losses as well as enjoy the wins, and he used his diminished capacities to their fullest potential.

Watching tennis for me, then, is a philosophical experience. I rejoice in the possibilities of human talent and striving, and I watch with regret as, again and again, the devoted sloggers are defeated by factors they cannot control, including the limitations of their bodies and psyches. I'm constantly reminded that youth is fleeting, that victory is rare and that we are all slowly fading away.

Of course, those who lose on the court will, perhaps even before they leave professional tennis, find other outlets for their talents, have other kinds of victories and successes, and learn new skills as well as having made pots of money. Their lives as a whole won't be downhill at all: people can keep growing and developing up until the day they die.

But when the sweet bird of youth begins to stop singing and, more prosaically, your supply of growth hormone diminishes, there's an autumnal quality to life that simply can't be denied, and you need to find new strengths to compensate. Watching the tennis in Melbourne each summer helps me come to terms with this.

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