Lessons From the Pitch

Saturday, June 21, 2014 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—According to at least one sports-history book, tennis and soccer share a link that dates back to medieval Europe. The theory goes that while the rest of the continent kicked and tossed balls around wide-open fields, the monks of France, stuck inside, began to hit balls against walls. That primitive idea became court tennis, which in turn became lawn tennis, which in our day has led to the 150-m.p.h serve, the tweener, and Hawk-Eye.

With those origins, it’s not surprising that soccer become the game of the people, while tennis remains cloistered in its ivory tower. Starting Monday, as they do every four years, the two sports will put their highest-profile events up against each other. For the next fortnight, tennis will stage its unofficial world championship at Wimbledon, while soccer is in the midst of its official one in Brazil.

I pay attention to tennis virtually every day of the year; as a good American, I pay attention to soccer for one month every four years. But I do tune into each World Cup game, and it seems that more of my countrymen are doing the same this time around. When it comes to fan dedication—or should I say fan hysteria?—even our own version of football can’t compare. Here are some thoughts I’ve had over the last two weeks about what tennis as a spectator sport can learn from its more popular brother.

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Time Should Wait for No One

As a non-devotee of soccer, the thing I like best about it is that the matches are over quickly. Virtually all of them, unless they're especially important, are done in under two hours. Knowing that, it’s much easier to sit down and watch from start to finish than it is to, say, watch an entire basketball game. It may be hard to believe, but an NBA game, if the clock never stopped, would last just 48 minutes, a little more than half of a soccer game. But of course the clock stops all the time in the NBA, for fouls, for timeouts, for commercial breaks, for replays, for balls that go out of bounds. Tuning into the fourth quarter alone can take up half of your evening. The clock in soccer just keeps rolling.

When it comes to tennis, I’ll always defend the elongated, three-out-of-five-set format at the majors, but the sport can still speed up. Matches often don’t start on time; the 25-second rule has been pushed past the breaking point; every player outside of Venus and Serena Williams stops for an illegal sip of water on the changeover after the opening game; and taking a bathroom break or a medical time-out after losing a set has begun to feel like the rule rather than the exception. After a few weeks with the World Cup, all of tennis’s slowdowns feel more like needless time-wasting than ever. In soccer, time stops for no one.

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The World Can Be Flat...

The conventional wisdom among tennis broadcasters in the U.S., and in particular ESPN, is that Americans want to watch other Americans play. That’s true to a degree—Serena Williams is still the biggest TV draw, man or woman, in the States. And the same is true in soccer—I’m sure the U.S. team’s opening win over Ghana was ESPN’s highest-rated of the World Cup so far. But the interest in soccer, which the network is broadcasting three times daily this month, has spread well beyond our borders. The World Cup, and thus ESPN, give each match equal weight—there are never two games on at once—so that’s how people watch the tournament. Each of the 32 participating countries has its moment on stage.

For a few hours, the world competes on something close to a level playing field. In the World Cup, Costa Rica can knock off Italy, Uruguay can do the same to England, and Ghana can play to a fabulous tie with Germany. Likewise, tennis now is as international as it has ever been, perhaps more so, with the decline of its traditional powers, the U.S. and Australia. At the moment, the men’s and women’s Top 10s include players from 17 different countries: Russia, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Great Britain, the U.S., Czech Republic, Japan, Canada, Romania, China, Belarus, Slovakia, Argentina, and Latvia—champions come from all over these days. If spectators in the U.S. will watch the world play soccer, is it a stretch to think we’ll also watch the world play tennis? Both sports make the world a little bit flatter.

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...But Nationalism Still Rules

In soccer, as in other Brit-created games like rugby and cricket, the international team version of the sport is the most prestigious, and brings in viewers who don’t pay attention otherwise. Once upon a time, this was also true of tennis, or at least men’s tennis. Before tennis players played for themselves and for money, they played for their countries. From the turn of the 20th century until the advent of the pro game 70s years later, winning the Davis Cup was the goal of every tennis player. That’s how Australia built its post-war tennis dynasty, by recruiting the best young athletes it could get to play for its Davis Cup team, the same way England recruits the best young athletes it can get for its national soccer team. Until the elite World Group was created in 1981, the men spent much of their time traveling the world to play Davis Cup ties.

Davis Cup today? It’s fine, it’s often great, it rarely disappoints, and the players, when they make time to participate, still love to play for their countries. For a few weekends a year, they get to act like the soccer stars that most of them wanted to be as kids. But is DC still the biggest thing in tennis? Not even close. 

That’s largely because Davis Cup still operates as if it’s 1960, and the pro tours haven't been invented yet. The ITF, which runs the competition, has scaled it back to a degree, but it has never made it fit smoothly inside the ATP schedule. There are still four rounds, played in four different, possibly far-flung locations, at four different times of year, usually right after a Grand Slam or a major tour event. This staggered, home-and-away, no-rest-for-the-weary system never really fails, but it doesn’t succeed the way it could. It doesn't unify or advertise tennis the way the World Cup—which is played all at once, in one place, with everyone present—does for soccer.

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It’s the Little Things That Count

Even the most rabid soccer and tennis fans can agree on one thing: Both games, like all games, can be boring. Tennis on grass can look like a glorified rock fight between big servers; on clay it can look like one towering moonball between baseliners. To the untrained eye (like mine), soccer can appear to be a game that keeps threatening to turn into something exciting, only to be foiled and sent back into chaos at the last second. How great can a game that ends 0-0 be, anyway?

Sometimes it can be pretty great, apparently. After years of listening to soccer announcers and analysts coo over a “lovely ball” or a “brilliant run” or a “perfect cross,” I’ve begun to appreciate these aspects of the game, even when they don’t lead to a score—which is to say, 99 percent of the time. Soccer forces you to pay attention to its process, rather than just its results, because it’s almost all process, and very little result.

This is obviously a skill that can be useful in tennis. A dull match can be made interesting when you pay close attention to the players’ shot selection, their mid-match adjustments, the way they vary, or don’t vary, their service directions or return positions. 

For those of us who didn’t grow up with soccer, and have struggled to comprehend and enjoy it as adults, the best lesson it offers is this: There’s more to sports than meets the eye, or the scoreboard.

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