Double Fault by Lionel Shriver (We Need To Talk About Kevin) is one of the finest novels ever written about tennis. If you ever spot it, snap it up. We’re amazed that it’s not better-known, and that it hasn’t been adapted for film. It’s about two professional tennis players who fall in love and marry each other. A terrible idea. Extremely competitive people working in the same field should not marry each other. The dating period will probably be fun, but in the long term, when one of them realizes that the other is more successful at what they do, there will be trouble. (Especially if the less successful one is actually better, just less lucky.)
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The game may be as mental as it is physical, but playing it well entails making the brain shut up. At my worst, my head is crowded with imperatives—first and foremost, though you’d think this would go without saying, WATCH THE BALL! Then: Step into the shot! Hit the ball in front of you! Get your racket back! But these clamouring edicts are an impediment to obeying them; they so clutter my mind that I might as well have strewn a clatter of gardening tools on the court itself.
Why is having hit the ball correctly thousands of times before never any guarantee of hitting it properly this time? That is the central puzzle of tennis, a mystery on parade at Wimbledon as well as in public parks. Even professionals will abruptly futz a shot they’ve hit dazzlingly since they were five.
Part of the answer is that there is no “this shot.” Any impression of having hit a ball before is an illusion. “Baseline forehand” is a crude umbrella under which cluster a constellation of infinitely various circumstances. Geometrical elements make every shot distinctive: angle, velocity, spin, and bounce. More interestingly, emotional variables pertain. How confident do you feel today? Did you lose the last point? Did you lose the last ten points? Are you still a little pissed off that your partner showed up 15 minutes late? Are you focused, or merely telling yourself to focus? That is, are you dwelling fully in the moment, or did you just start debating lamb patties vs haddock for dinner?
For tennis tantalisingly offers perfect inhabitation of the present tense, what drummers call playing “in the pocket.” During brief, intoxicating periods of hitting at the top of your game, the mental cacophony quiets, and there’s no longer any space between “telling yourself” to do something and doing it. This flow state seems like not thinking. In fact, it is perfect thinking.
Read My tennis obsession by Lionel Shriver at Prospect.