Monday, May 5, 2008

The Wonderful Paradox of Tennis

Ruminations on tennis, starting with a bold statement: there is no more intense single competition between athletes in the world of sports. No coaching, no time limits, no quarter given or received. Conditioning must be optimal, equipment just right, gameplan tuned, and mentally you've got to be razor-sharp.
There is just nothing like it anywhere; two athletes pushing each other in every way imaginable, incorporating drama of the highest order, skill beyond parallel, and brute strength of will. Best of all, it's unbelievably fun, and has the adaptability to be enjoyed by anyone at any level.
In the center of all of this energy, there lies a paradox which gives tennis such an unbelievably addictive and motivating quality...
Only through strict adherence to structure, form, technique and discipline will tennis allow an outpouring of creativity, craftsmanship, and art. But without this rigid foundation, the creative process is thwarted and will remain untapped below the surface.
Disagree? Watch the masters of the game, Sharapova, Federer, Graf, Agassi, and try to find the flaws in their fundamentals as they work their magic. Of course they have preternatural gifts we can only dream of, but they also have impeccable footwork, first class fitness, and reliable shots, all of which only come through endless hours of practice and persistence.
One might think that this means that tennis can only be truly enjoyed when someone is at the highest levels, but quite the opposite is true! What this paradox distills down to is that whatever you put into your game, you get tenfold back; as you improve and expand your repertoire, you get to be evermore creative, innovative, and crafty with your game.
Tennis has been a huge part of my life since I was a little kid flailing around with my Prince Jr. From the start, the game jibed beautifully with my meticulous nature and desire for competition. It also gave me a creative outlet that was hard to find otherwise. I was never much for drawing, painting, or modeling on any consistent basis, though each had their crack. Looking back, as soon as I got serious about my tennis, my artistic jones was satified.
As I learned footwork and gained fitness, I could make my body get into any number of postures while on the full run. Footwork led to shoulder-turn, into backswing, which became weight transfer and hip rotation, thus generating racket head acceleration through the ball, and voila! another ball flew against the fence, or bounced into the next, or just casually missed my racket completely.
So things have changed a bit since those first wild cuts, and it's the endless repetition that makes the game so sweet. That dogma of body movements allows for spins (topspin, slice, flat), pace (heavy, slow), net clearance (high, low, down the line, crosscourt) and placements too numerous to count. As that central dogma is practiced, more of these intrinsic variables become accessible, and suddenly you realize "hey, I'm playing tennis here!"
Now, when I'm feeling creative, I can try putting more topspin and depth on a short ball, or pronate my wrist a bit more on my serve to see if I can kick my second serve up to someone's shoulder. I get to enjoy the same process of exploration as any painter or sculptor.
Given that my schedule is a bit erratic, I've recently splurged on a serious indulgence, I bought a tennis ball machine! Now I can get out and paint just about anytime I want, and when there's a photographer in the family, well...
It's all about footwork, footwork, footwork!
and watching the ball!
One of the best parts of the creative process of being a tennis player has got to be the facial expressions. Even though I've never watched myself play, I can only imagine some of the remarkable, plasticine poses my face twists into. If you look closely below, you'll see quite a nice example; notice how the left corner of my mouth seems to be chasing my racket during the followthrough on my backhand
Of course, that shot tore over the net and plowed into an unreachable corner of the opposite court, demonstrating once again that amidst great mutilation there can lie great beauty.

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