I’ve watched a lot of pro tennis. But up until this weekend, I (like most tennis fans) had never seen pro tennis in person. This weekend I attended the US Men’s Clay Court Championship at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, Texas. What I saw changed how I think about the game, and gave me a fuller understanding of the pressures (physical and mental) these top athletes are under.
First, though, a little tennis history:
River Oaks has been the home of this tournament for 78 years. It’s an ATP 250 event, meaning it is at the lowest level of the “major league” of tennis. Despite the small size, it’s been host to some of the all-time great players. Emerson, Laver, Connors, Agassi, and Roddick have played here. Arthur Ashe broke the color barrier in 1974. Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer both played the tournament at the age of 17, Borg in 1974 and Federer in 1999. It is the only tournament in the US to be played on clay, a “slow playing” surface that enables long rallies and defense-centric matches. The 2012 draw included the two top ranked Americans (Mardy Fish and John Isner), as well as two other world top-twenty players (Feliciano Lopez and Juan Monaco).
My own tennis history is a little less distinguished. I’ve been following the men’s tour for about a year and a half, and was really turned on to the sport by David Foster Wallace. His tennis essays are some of the best sports writing you’ll ever read. (If you’re interested, you can read his tennis stuff here, here, and here.) After reading those pieces, I started watching tennis on TV, and quickly came to this conclusion: Tennis is the most beautiful, most perfect game ever devised. It makes abstract concepts like grace, control, and athleticism, concrete (or as Wallace would say, not only concrete, but televise-able). Seeing a tennis player hit a cross-court winner into the corner, 78 feet away, at 80mph, while on the run…that is pure beauty in motion.
But Wallace also said “the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love”…so when the opportunity came to see real, live tennis, I jumped at it. And what I saw gave me insight into how these players approach the game, insight I never would have gleaned from watching televised tennis.