Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"The most beautiful sport there is . . ."

This past month was the 14th anniversary of what many people consider the best single essay on tennis ever written . . .

The String Theory, by David Wallace Foster (July 1996), was first published in the New York Times, and later Esquire Magazine . . . and even today is remarked upon by serious tennis fans and followers as one of the best commentaries on the sport . . .

It was written about world-class player, Michael Joyce, ranked 79th in the world at the time and who currently helps coach tennis superstar Maria Sharapova. Yet it commented insightfully on a range of topics from the unique world of professional tennis, to what separates the top players in the game from all the rest, to the special demands and challenges of the sport . . .

An excerpt:
"I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is and also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that weird mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires smarts. Just one single shot in one exchange in one point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical variables.

Given a net that’s three feet high (at the center) and two players in (unrealistically) fixed positions, the efficacy of one single shot is determined by its angle, depth, pace, and spin. And each of these determinants is itself determined by still other variables -- i.e., a shot’s depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball’s height over the net itself determined by the player’s body position, grip on the racket, height of backswing and angle of racket face, as well as the 3-D coordinates through which the racket face moves during that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings.

The tree of variables and determinants branches out and out, on and on, and then on much further when the opponent’s own position and predilections and the ballistic features of the ball he’s sent you to hit are factored in. No silicon-based RAM yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange; smoke would come out of the mainframe.

The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then it can really be done only unconsciously, i.e., by fusing talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought. In other words, serious tennis is a kind of art."

Enjoy reading the entire essay here:
The String Theory


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