Tennis and the Meaning of Life

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agassiLet’s get one thing straight. It’s just a game, no big deal. Tennis is as simple as pie. Yellow ball and nifty racket: hit it over that net and into the rectangle and you’re home free. Win two or three sets, and you’re a hero. Gotta love it.

“If you really think about it,” says Maria Sharapova, “it’s so dumb — you have a grip in your hand, strings in the racket, there’s a yellow fuzzy ball and you’re hitting it and you’ve been doing it since you were four. It’s ridiculous. It’s really dumb, but it’s what we do.”

Yet somehow, someway, our game informs and reveals. It teaches us much about the assorted mysteries we face. All of which invites baseliners and serve-and-volleyers alike to ask the simple question: When all is said and done, what does little ol’ tennis tell us about this journey we’re on? What does our curious game teach us about the meaning of life?

IT’S THE BALL, STUPID

• James Blake claimed, “Your relationship with the ball is your relationship with life.”

• San Diego sports sage Jerry McGhee quipped, “Tennis is nothing but boxing with a ball.”

• Martina Navratilova said, “The ball doesn’t know I’m 45.” A year later, she said, “I’m so excited about next year that I can’t stand it. I’ve never been bored on court. The ball always comes over the net differently. There’s always something different about it. Life is as exciting as you make it.”

• After suffering a wretched upset, Svetlana Kuznetsova said, “I’m frustrated…[that] the ball doesn’t go where I want it to go. It goes a different way. I’m, like, ‘Okay, I played tennis for 17 years, and I still cannot put this little ball in this huge court.’ I’m not the worst player in the world, so definitely I have expectations to put a few more [balls] in. It’s not the fault of the ball. The ball is perfect. It’s the right size. It’s not broken. It’s bounces, it’s green, has white lines, it’s written Penn. But I’m not perfect. I have to work on it.”

IT’S A GIFT TO BE SIMPLE

• According to one anonymous observer, “Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.”

• Robin Williams said, “Tennis is like chess at 90 mph.”

• Billie Jean King said that when you hit a perfect tennis shot, “it feels like mind, body and soul are integrated for a perfect moment.”

• Reflecting on the distinctive manner everyone brings to tennis, Herb Fitzgibbon said, “A tennis stroke is like a fingerprint.”

• Ernests Gulbis claimed, “Tennis is pretty simple. People who don’t understand tennis talk about it like it’s rocket science, analyzing this, analyzing that. It’s very simple. It’s just practice, practice, practice.”

THE SPORTING LIFE

• After the ’05 James Blake vs. Andre Agassi U.S. Open classic, Gil Reyes said, “Just think about all the things that are so special, so good about sports — the human spirit, the human will, having a genuine love and respect for each other, and the biggest respect you can give an athlete is to give it all you have against him.”

• Jon Wertheim noted, “Unpredictability is one of the great virtues of sports. Want scripted endings? You go to the theater. Want choreography? Go to the ballet. Then there are sports, the best reality TV going, virtually limitless in their capacity for surprise.”

• Chuck Klosterman theorized, “The reason I need sports in my life is that it’s the only aspect of my existence that I understand completely. It’s the only subject that fills me with confidence and gives me any sense of control. I mean, I have no idea what we should do about North Korea. I don’t really understand the subtext of Moby Dick. Every woman I’ve ever known has completely baffled me…[But] If I meet a stranger in an airport bar and the guy is watching SportsCenter…I can talk to this dude for 20 minutes…Sport is the only idiom that millions of Americans comprehend, or at least think they comprehend, in profound detail. It is the only subject that allows us to see, or at least feel, truth.”

• Chuck After becoming the first Asian-born player to win a Slam, Ni La wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “Sport Changes Everything.”

THE VARIETIES OF THE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

• Andrew Clark suggested, “It is difficult to describe the serenity one attains from striking a tennis ball with authority. Gravity, geometry and all the forces of nature collaborate, and the fuzzy yellow orb spins as it should. Intent becomes action, and action becomes reality. That is the high. For some, tennis is a hobby; for others, it is a compulsion. For the most stricken, like me, it is a religion that, like Buddhism, allows devotees to transcend time and space and glean insight into the true nature of existence.”

• Esquire’s Stephen Marche wrote, “The reason Americans love sports is that it’s the one spiritual experience you can have with a beer in your hand. We are a fractured, atomistic, self-regarding culture, but we connect through the shared experience of watching humans do superhuman things. Usain Bolt demolishing his own 100-meter world record…Federer and Nadal smashing miracles at each other for five hours at Wimbledon. Landon Donovan reviving g U.S. soccer in extra time against Algeria.”

• After winning the Aussie Open, Jennifer Capriati said, “I’m very spiritual, and there’s a greater purpose here than what we’re doing. I believe in that higher power, and I know that it’s going to take care of me as long as I’m a good person. Basically, I have a faith…That’s the whole part about just trying to find yourself, the meaning of what we’re doing here.”

• Iconic guitarist Carlos Santana said, “We don’t play tennis or music for any other reason than to have fun and raise consciousness…We resonate and have a vibration, resonance and sound. Joy is very contagious, [but] the mantle of fear and anger has been planted. The media adds a lot to it by not balancing all the other beautiful things that are happening on this planet. There will always be a spring. There will always be babies born. Andre Agassi’s baby is a sign to bring more light…We come from the light, and we’re going to return to the light. We’re just passing through.”

OF FARCE AND FOLLIES

• Mary Carillo said her sense of the soap opera that is tennis is that “no matter how cynical you are, it’s hard to keep up.”

• Italian broadcaster Gianni Clerici said, “The greatest vulgarity is not having a sense of humor.”

• Comedian Mitch Hedberg complained, “The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I’ll never be as good as a wall.”

AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM

• Chuck Culpepper mused, “The world never seems to stop churning out little girls who become young women who can maul helpless tennis balls until, until…well…until they make even Sharapova look decrepit.”

• Tennis Channel founder Steve Bellamy said, “If you put your kids in tennis, they will be smarter, happier, healthier, will make more money, have a more stable marriage, have more children, will live longer and add more to society. What other activity can attest to that?”

• The New York Times’ Robert Lipsyte contended, “[Jimmy] Connors reminds you all how much we have given up by growing up. Lucky Jimmy. If only we could once again stop the party in the living room, make all the grownups applaud our naughty words, dance through the hors d’oeuvres, posture and preen and be a terrible two, the only time when a human being will be loved for conquering the world while crying.”

• Virginia Wade said, “Wimbledon has the wisdom and comfort of a grandparent, but the energy of a teenager.”

LIFE IS FOR LIVING

• Yannick Noah confided, “I think about death all the time. That’s why I love life so much.”

• Andre Agassi said, “I can live with losing. I can’t live without taking my chance.”

• Aussie Alicia Molik said her philosophy is “don’t die wondering.”

LOVE, LIFE AND THE PASSION HUMAN SPIRIT

• Mary Pierce explained her 2000 run to the French Open final, saying, “The magic word is love. The power of love is amazing.”

• Noah said, “I always love and enjoy trying to be different in a way of being free. Being myself…I never let the environment affect me…I don’t let ignorance affect me. Otherwise, I’m not going to get anywhere. What’s important is am I a decent human being?”

• Reflecting on Capriati’s ’01 Aussie Open comeback win, Agassi said it was “symbolic of the battle we all go through. It’s a testament to how strong the human spirit is. You’re out there all by yourself. You can be overwhelmed, but to watch her dig down and survive can help people. It’s a story for all of us…because it translates into all of our lives.”

• Yannick Noah said, “I like people who live life with a passion. And in tennis, as in life, I think everyone should go to the net. Take risks. Like the Three Musketeers, attack and live dangerously!”

ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE

• Andre Agassi contended, “Tennis teaches you there’s no such thing as perfect…You hope to be perfect, then you’re out there and you’re far less than perfect. And you realize, I don’t really have to be perfect, I just have to be better than one person…Tennis is…probably the most lonely [sport]. You’re out there with no team, no coach, no place to hide. That’s why tennis players not only talk to themselves but answer. And yet all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone.”

• John Jeremiah Sullivan observed, “No other sport isolates athletes to a degree you find in a pro singles match. Not even a ring man or a caddie for comfort. So much time between each point to think about what’s going wrong, to get nervous or mad, to doubt. So much physical space around each player. And there’s the hush, the always imperfect hush — it’s a game that can be disrupted by somebody coming back late from the bathroom. Not, in short, a game that is friendly to head cases.”

POLITICS AND PROSE

• At a Davis Cup draw in ’47, President Truman said, “I hope the time will come when we can settle our international differences in courts, just as we settle our tennis differences on a court.”

• Noah noted, “You can make a difference. We can make things better together. If you change one person, one mind, one idea, it changes the whole universe. This is how we have to start.”

• Reflecting on what his wins mean to Serbia, Novak Djokovic said, “We’ve grown up through two wars…[So] you appreciate some things and know your values…Everybody loves their country. I don’t love my country more than you love yours, but…we’ve been through something different. So to be able to help those people who…have suffered and still suffer is our obligation.”

• Agassi said, “We’ve all learned, if you take away hope, you create a suicide bomb. More than anything, this is about hope.”

• Reflecting on the bombing of her hometown, Monica Seles said, “It’s just sad. Sometimes you wonder about the whole state of the world and where human beings are going. It’s really mind-boggling what we do to each other. I really believe we are all the same, and I hope the consciousness level of the entire world will come to that. But it is hard to see that.

• Noah said there is a “a pain of generations of people around the world who have been jailed for what they believe. They have been brutalized for saying the right things. To be able to come across and not waste time with anger and revenge, it’s very unusual.”

THE ART OF TENNIS

• John McEnroe played his poetry card, saying, “Tennis points may be inspiring at the moment, but then the moment is gone. They’re like poetry written on water.”

• Bjorn Borg suggested, “The chemistry of a tennis player is different from that of a painter. The artist is not judged as harshly. The artist does not win or lose every day in black and white terms as we do. Picasso did not have a 5-3 won-lost record with Van Gogh. But I have to live with my 5-3 record against McEnroe and try to see that the balance doesn’t change.”

• Janko Tipsarevic has a Dostoevsky-inspired tattoo that claims: “Beauty Will Save the World.”

THERE’S A KIND OF HUSH ALL OVER THE WORLD

• Rafael Nadal said, “Work with humility and never make do with what you’ve got. Always want more.”

• Spain’s Davis Cup leader, Alex Corretja, said, “We have to be humble. It’s transcendental. We have to suffer, maintain and be quiet. I will sacrifice and think globally.”

EGO, SEX, FEAR AND THE DREAMS OF DR. FREUD

• John McEnroe complained, “Tennis is so addictive. You have your ego gratified all the time. So it’s difficult to walk away and not have your ass kissed.”

• Chris Evert claimed, “To be a tennis champion, you have to be inflexible. You have to be stubborn. You have to be arrogant. You have to be selfish and self-absorbed. Kind of tunnel vision almost … [You] have to protect yourself and save all your mental and emotional energies for tennis.”

• Boris Becker said the Wimbledon fortnight was “like a long foreplay that ends with a huge orgasm.”

• Andrea Petkovic wrote, “Tennis players have great lives. We stay at the best hotels, travel the most beautiful cities and we do what we love every day. Everything could be perfect if there wasn’t this one problem: We live in constant fear. We’re scared to get injured, scared to lose in the first round, scared of what people might think if we play poorly, we’re scared of admitting we’re scared.”

• Andre Agassi said, “I feel I’m living a dream. I’ll work the rest of my life to give back what this sport has given me.”

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE

• Sharapova said, “You have to realize it’s not all rainbows and butterflies.”

• Seles confided, “In my life, none of those storybook endings has happened yet.”

PUTTING IT ALL PERSPECTIVE

• “Do what you love and love what you do and the rest is just details. People get caught up in what they’re supposed to do or what makes them more money. Money is a necessary evil, but we put too much emphasis on it and what car you drive instead of what’s inside. But, that’s how the world’s going, isn’t it?” – Martina Navratilova

• Inside Tennis mused, “There is something very magical about this game we call tennis. It’s not just that it’s for boys and girls; that you can play it in Bali or Brooklyn; that it’s a recreational and spectator sport, or that you can play when you’re eight or 80. But our sport develops and expresses character and reflects life itself with all its messy wonders, more than any other.”

• Helen Wills Moody said, “I say ‘I am going to have a game of tennis.’ But what I really mean is, ‘I am going to have a wonderful time under the sky, in the sun. I am going to rush around, feeling the motion of the air and the movement of my body through space. For a while, for me, the world will not exist…I shall lose myself in the fun of the game, in competition that seems real but is not important. I am going to play.'”