I admire the players as I watch the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Of course, I admire their athletic ability, as I do top performers in other sports. They are faster, stronger, more coordinated, quicker than mere mortals, but I also think about how they are different in ways that I can’t see in their contests.
They have honed and maintained their skills in hours upon hours of practice. This includes repeating the same motions over and over. The normal body might rebel at this. We would get micro tears, muscle strains, or stress fractures. Day after day of typing can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. The repetitive tasks on an assembly line can lead to joint or back problem. The athlete’s body, however, tolerates physical repetition or else the athletes would not be as skilled as they are.
Such practice, however, also requires a special kind of mind. Many athletes have regular practice sessions of four or more hours, and there would be no point in spending this time unless the athlete can concentrate on what they are doing during this time. I know that I cannot. I have practiced some of the sports I have played, but after fifteen minutes my attention begins to wander. My performance falls off, and if I continue, I begin ingraining worse habits than when I began. Good athletes not only have better athletic ability than I, they have minds that allow them to focus in ways I do not.
These body and mind attributes are there in all great athletes, but the nature of tennis means that its players must also have an additional mental attribute that many sports do not require. Unlike in most sports, the tennis player does not get coaching during the match. Yes, I know that illegal coaching from the stands goes on, and that limited coaching is allowed in some tournaments, but the basic point remains. Tennis players almost always must decide whether or how to adjust tactics during a match without a coach’s help. Even in other individual sports this is rare. The boxer every two or three minutes hears from the trainer who also shouts instructions doing the round; golfers regularly talk with their caddies, who also help read the greens; the track athlete’s strategy is almost always set before the race begins. Tennis players in matches of one, two, three, or four hours must be able to make adjustments, decisions that they must make without outside help.
The solitary nature of tennis also means that when players hit a rough patch, lose their edge or focus–which often happens in a long, close match–they alone must find a way, if they are to be successful, to regain the lost form. The tennis player does not have what is available in team sports: teammates to buoy up the player or fill in for a while or up the level of their own play so that the player’s slough can be tolerated. The tennis player must do it alone.
I watch a tennis tournament, and I admire not only the players’ skill, reflexes, power, and grace, but also their remarkable mental agility and resilience.