With technology and improved athletic physique, has the value of pro sports diminished?
It is the unpredictability of success or failure that is instantly gratifying to spectators.
In a satirical novel, two weekend tennis players are described in a convivial exchange across the net. Their game is so sluggish and mediocre that once the set gets going, out of sheer boredom, one of them launches a high skyward lob. So slow and endlessly parabolic is the rise of the ball that the other player goes into the clubhouse for a beer and waits for it to arch back down to earth…
The physics of weekend tennis oscillates between such extreme lethargy and farcical tedium that neither Newtonian gravity nor quantum mechanics can answer its difficult call.
In fact, in the past few years, as technology and athletic physiques have progressed, even the value of professional sport has diminished. In 1969, Rod Laver’s quest for a Grand Slam in the final of the US Open Tennis Championships — then called Forest Hills — was aided by a wooden racquet strung with dried sheep gut. He carried a couple of extra racquets in a bag, in case a string broke during play. His light rubber-soled shoes merely wrapped his feet in thin canvas, much in the way his label-less shirt did, earning him no endorsement money. In the locker room, he had limbered up with some basic callisthenics.
Despite such rudimentary implements and training, Laver propelled himself around the grass court, chasing, slipping and sliding after each ball, riding out each point with energetic exuberance. After numerous rain delays and much wringing of umpire hands, his win left him as surprised and pleased as anyone else. Laver jumped the net to shake hands with Tony Roche, his opponent, and then stood sweaty and smiling at a ceremony that gave him a net $16,000 for two weeks of work. The amount covered his hotel expenses, his flight back to Australia, and then some.
Through the 70s, competitive tennis was the most lyrical bastion of stroke-making, outside of cricket and swimming. People trudged up to Wimbledon to watch Ken Rosewall’s backhand and Laver’s forehand; they went to see John McEnroe volley (and listen to his abuses). Finesse, balance, placement made the game a sporting art form, in which each player was a unique character in a two-week play. Keeping score was almost redundant. Who cared if Bjorn Borg won or Arthur Ashe lost. They played with pieces of wood, retrieving and returning a ball with the agility and grace of a performing artist. That was enough.
Exactly half a century later, Novak Djokovic, on his way to winning this year’s Wimbledon, followed a routine more in tune with Apollo astronauts than with a game played on a small rectangle of grass. What began with warm-up exercises, jumping jacks, high kicks, squats, inverted hamstring and inchworm stretches, went into muscle recovery mode — using massage and foam rollers to work calf, quadriceps and hip flexors — eventually ending with a 90-minute practice session with a hitting partner who accompanies Djokovic to every tournament.
And to be really primed for a 5-set match that may last three hours or more, Djokovic used a $100,000 fitness egg-pod — an advanced machine that oxygenates the body and exterminates accumulated waste — thereby converting an already efficient tennis machine into a supercharged tennis machine.
In the quarter-finals, Djokovic and Marton Fucsovics began a rally exchange that lasted over 30 strokes. First hitting forehand to forehand, they then moved to backhands, keeping up a continual cross-court exchange. A slow backhand slice followed a sharper flat return; a cross-court with a down-the-line. The stroke-making was textbook perfection with neither faltering.
The trouble with perfection is that it produces both awe and boredom. The new crop of young players like Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Stefanos Tsitsipas have all taken a page out of the Djokovic handbook. Relentless in practice and physical endurance, each has the high performance of a long-distance runner, each is a well-oiled tennis machine.
With every ball that rises elliptically, hope springs up in the spectators that between its trajectory and placement an error will occur. But rarely. As bored spectators help themselves to beer after beer between breaks, the exchanges on court continue endlessly, only occasionally interrupted by a through-the-legs shot, specifically designed to allay the boredom.
The serious ingredient missing in Djokovic’s supposedly complete but robotic repertoire is therefore fallibility. Human frailty brings delight in the uncertainty of the result. Individual sport is the most crucial arena for expressing vulnerability. In tennis or boxing, the zone of containment is so well defined, the stadium so structured for the display of concentrated effort, that everyone watching feels your emotion.
All too often, Federer and Nadal stretch themselves to such extreme court positions that their impossibly difficult shots are either extraordinary winners or shameless mistakes — one accomplishing his trade with power, the other with finesse. In both, the unpredictability of success or failure becomes instantly gratifying to spectators who see in them either god, or a bit of themselves.
Unfortunately, high technology and the unusual build of sportspersons have made most court games dull and mechanical. For years, the real thrill of basketball was in the remarkable ability of diminutive men to find or miss the basket. Players were frail and weak, like the rest of us. When someone scored, there was a feeling of real jubilation. At a recent friendly match, Singapore beat Kuwait 28-4. Contrast this with the 110-108 score in NBA games. Everyone is LeBron James, nearly 7 feet tall, scoring effortlessly from a mile away. The only way to salvage basketball is to raise the baskets higher and hope that players’ heights don’t increase proportionately.
Like an efficient bee
Djokovic’s march into the top league, with perfect strokes and disturbing grunts, is a reminder that changing rules and equipment are no guarantees of a sport’s visual value or longevity. The new rackets of titanium and steel alloy render the ball invisible on the serve, so manufacturers have made the tennis ball heavier.
Still, Djokovic’s lean physique toned by masseuses and oxygenation pods manages so exhaustive and extreme a court coverage that he looks like an efficient honeybee pollinating a small flower patch. For the game to become watchable again, the court size needs to be enlarged by several feet so that great players like him can actually chase an unreachable ball.
As the end of August approaches, Djokovic heads into New York for the US Open. Like Laver half a century ago, he too is vying for the biggest win of his career, the calendar Grand Slam, as well as for a chance to overtake Federer and Nadal in the numbers game. The certainty of his game depends on rigorous pre-match practice, peak physical training, and, of course, the heightened levels of oxygenated blood from time spent in the egg pod. With a $3.4 million purse at stake, every muscle, machine part and body cell must be revved to peak performance. The player need barely come into the picture.