July 6, 2017

"Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely."

"Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers.”

Wrote Andre Agassi, quoted in "Nick Kyrgios, the Reluctant Rising Star of Tennis/He has been called the most talented player since Roger Federer. But does he even want to win?" by Louisa Thomas, who adds: "And, during a match, unlike boxers, tennis players can’t talk to or touch even their opponents, let alone a coach." (New Yorker)

I'd heard that article in podcast form on my walk today. Searching the website to get to the text, I used the terms tennis and boxers and happened upon this article from last year about David Foster Wallace, who wrote about tennis (which he'd played with some success at the junior level):
It is perhaps not far-fetched to imagine Wallace’s noticing early on that tennis is a good sport for literary types and purposes. It draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games. Even boxers have a corner, but in professional tennis it is a rules violation for your coach to communicate with you beyond polite encouragement, and spectators are asked to keep silent while you play. Your opponent is far away, or, if near, is indifferently hostile. It may be as close as we come to physical chess, or a kind of chess in which the mind and body are at one in attacking essentially mathematical problems. So, a good game not just for writers but for philosophers, too. The perfect game for Wallace.

34 comments:

Tommy Duncan said...

"Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely."

Obviously, Andre has never played right field.

D said...

I imagine figure skating can be a very very lonely five minutes, after you practiced for years, all for one shot. More like boxing in that regard, where all the time you spent in practice comes down to a few moments, and inches between defeat/victory.
I suppose in tennis or golf the loneliness can drag on an hour or two.

Michael E. Lopez said...

"Physical chess" is a frequent nickname for Fencing.

urbane legend said...

"Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. Why?

Because tennis players are so unbelievably self-centered and think they are godlike individuals who can do no wrong? Serena Williams and John McEnroe come to mind.

Williams and Sheila Jackson Lee are twins, aren't they?

Comanche Voter said...

Oh cut Andre some slack. He's ignored doubles tennis--male or female--and mixed doubles tennis as well.

Somebody (well maybe a Roger Federer) comes at you with a 125 mph serve. That can be lonely. On the other hand a guy digging in at the batter's box faces an occasional 100 mph fastball--and getting hit with a hardball smarts a bit worse than being hit with a tennis ball.

Art in LA said...

I play a lot of tennis and I tell non-tennis playing friends that the game is "gentlemen's boxing", trading blows from 80 feet apart. A great workout ... singles at least.

eric said...

I dunno. I have two boys in gymnastics. Seems pretty lonely.

exiledonmainstreet said...

I'm sure the pitcher's mound can feel very lonely. I didn't see the game this afternoon and so don't know if Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery was talking to himself out there, but if he was the conversation could not have been pleasant - not when you have loaded the bases and then issued a walk to the opposing pitcher. 7 run third inning for the Brewers.

http://m.mlb.com/news/article/240830244/brewers-ride-7-run-3rd-to-rout-of-cubs/

WTF has happened to the Cubs?

Ralph L said...

Some men manage to have corners in their boxers.

Marathon running looks lonely--and just plain boring.

PB said...

Ann, you've obviously never played golf.

PackerBronco said...

Golfer talk to themselves even more. Actually, my sport is cycling and I talk to myself all of the time when I riding up some big mountain pass. The conversation is usually spiced with a lot of 4-letter words.

David in Cal said...

In tennis one is playing against himself to a considerable degree. Tennis players often criticize themselves when they miss a shot that they feel they should be capable of making.

William said...

I never played at the competitive level, but I met some players who did. They were temperamental and their self confidence was closer to arrogance than swagger. That's true of many professional athletes, but tennis seems to get more than a fair share of jerks......They say that if you play with a superior player your game will improve. That wasn't my experience, but that's what they say.......I used to box at the local boys club. I gave some of the black kids from the neighborhood a chance to vent some of their frustration and anger by pounding me. The nice thing about tennis is that when you're overmatched it's an exercise in humility and your can reflect on your limitations.. When you're overmatched in boxing, however, it's an exercise in pain. Even when you're twelve years old and swathed in protective equipment, you can feel the pain in some of those punches. Also you know and your opponent knows when he's faster than you and if his punches are painful. There's nothing more sickening than the smile on your opponent's face when he has this epiphany...... I lost interest in the sport. It never built much character on my part.

Ralph L said...

William, you don't need callouses on your face, either.

Ann Althouse said...

The golfer has his caddie.

BDNYC said...

Krygios is a little old to be a rising star in tennis. And comparing him to Federer is outrageous.

rcocean said...

The loneliness of the long distance runner.

Is it just me, or does Professional Tennis seem incredibly boring. I can't remember the last time I watched.

rcocean said...

Golfing is actually lonelier because you're always playing against the course, unless its match play.

bagoh20 said...

The loneliest sport is fishing, at least the way I do it. I mean I talk to the competition, but the don't talk back. This is all good though, and exactly the way it should be. Like greed, loneliness is good. Just wait until you forget how good they can be to you.

mockturtle said...

I'm sure golfers talk to themselves more than tennis players. I know I did--and it wasn't pretty, either. Caddies? Well, if you're on the Tour. Most of us don't have caddies. Nowadays golf carts are de rigueur on many popular courses. A shame, since you don't get much exercise that way.

Yes, a golfer is usually playing the course, not his/her opponents. In tennis you are definitely playing your opponent, looking for his/her weaknesses, etc. It brings out a killer instinct that can actually help you win. With golf, you can only take it out on yourself.

Lucien said...

I guess the Iditarod mushers have the dogs to talk to.

traditionalguy said...

Talking to yourself is one way to pray. Hopefully you know something to pray for. But answering yourself is not advisable, especially in a doubles match.

Jimmy Connors just grunted with feeling.

Ralph L said...

The loneliness of the long distance runner.
Is it just me, or does Professional Tennis seem incredibly boring. I can't remember the last time I watched.

I thought of the movie, too.
Yes it is, everyone plays a baseline game punctuated by grunts. I imagine doubles is better, but I haven't seen any in decades.

Unknown said...

I used to play a lot of tennis and chess and I like the comparison. Tennis was just so personally competitive that I had to give up playing my best friend. I found it difficult to just not hate his guts out there. We probably played each other too much. But you are just out there trying to kill each other. Boxing is also a nice comparison.

Timeforchange said...

Try Horseshoe competition that's a lonely sport. After 79 years it's a lot of fun beating all those younger than you.

dbp said...

I've done a lot of sports and tennis is intermediate on the "talking to myself index". I would put running races at the bottom of the talking to myself list: You push yourself so hard that your mind is fogged by pain. The most talky were Olympic style weight lifting (clean and jerk) and downhill skiing through moguls. I think it is because your weight, timing and nerve have to be perfectly aligned or you will fail. The worst of all was when I learned how to ride the unicycle--I was in junior high at the time, so youth may have played into it, but I was talking to myself like Bogart in one of those movies where he is slowly going insane. I've only golfed a few times and didn't really care how I did, but I think it would be a very 'talk to myself' kind of sport if I ever took it up seriously.

surfed said...

Surfers talk to themselves the entire time they're in the water. Particularly when it's big and the element of drowning is present. There are no athiests in a big wave line up. Mountain bikers also carry on long internal conversations, kyakers...more.

surfed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry Nelson said...

I'm thinking Alex Honold probably talked to himself when he free soloed El Capitan.
Tennis? Please.

surfed said...

Addendum: because we are dancing on water music runs through our heads too. At my paricular home break at the mouth of the St Johns river older surfers will pull out big speakers from their vans and crank up the tunes so you can session your aquatic dance to Quicksilver Messenger Service's version of "Who Do You Love" or the Allman Brothers "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed". We dont talk to each much beyond claims of "My peak" or "Going right/left"...

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

"How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" made think that maybe I was incorrect in my belief that David Foster Wallace was much smarter than me.

James K said...

I play a lot of tennis, and talk (and curse) to myself a lot. I don't feel lonely, at least in casual tennis, since you do interact with your opponent. The antidote to the self-talking/cursing back in the day was The Inner Game of Tennis, which I read 40 years ago and still remember (but don't always live by).

Wilbur said...

The great Bobby Jones remarked that golfers mostly play the course that lies 6 inches between the ears.

I've found that the most difficult thing about golf was that, unlike most other sports where you are mostly quickly acting and reacting to an opponent, in golf the ball is just sitting there and you always have to initiate the action. It's similar to why some basketball players have mental issues shooting free throws or baseball players making a simple throw.

Reid Smith said...

Having been afflicted for over 55 years, I can certainly say that golfers talk to themselves incessantly. Never having played tennis, or been associated with anyone so occupied, I can't say whose more vociferous. Saying that golfers have caddies is a red herring. Outside of pro golf, and perhaps a handful of private clubs, caddies are absent. In a typical round of golf, I can't say how many times I cuss myself, praise myself, berate myself, etc... I suspect golf and tennis are both games played in the 6 inches between my ears. Hence the verbosity.