That tennis is entitled to the place of supremacy among games seems to me no unreasonable claim. First of all and most important: when you are playing tennis, whether in singles or doubles, it is always you and your opponent. You are not looking on, except for the briefest moment; you are not getting any more rest than you wish, you are more often not having as much as you would like.
From the first stroke of the game to the last you are in constant yet always changing opposition to another player. Even in doubles on the strokes that are your partner's you are not a mere spectator; you are running backward, forward, keeping pace with him, seeking the position in which the next ball may be most advantageously received. Your decision must be instant; in the fraction of a second you determine whether you shall drive the ball or toss it into the air, place it on the left or on the right, rush to the net or run back; you must have an instinctive knowledge of what your opponent expects you to do and then, if possible, do something else. Once you have succeeded in out-witting him, the triumph is all yours; you divide the honors with no one. Tennis more than any other game has the qualities that gave the duel its fascination; it is all eager and alive, two men at close quarters, parrying, thrusting, both alert for an opening to give the final coup de grace.
Call to mind some long rally that you have had; remember how on one occasion when your opponent was playing deep in the court you drew him to the net by a ball chopped skillfully just over it; how he returned the stroke, and how you next shot the ball down the side line, thinking to pass him. But he had anticipated the attempt and volleyed cleverly; then, instead of trying the cross court shot that he was waiting for, you tossed the ball high over his head, and while he spun round and raced for it you trotted to the net, prepared to "kill" the lob that he should send in return. And, just as you had hoped, it was a short lob; but instead of killing it, you decided it would be more fun to keep him running, and you turned the ball over into the farther corner of his court. He went after it at full speed and lobbed again—it was all he could do, poor fellow—and again the ball fell short, again you had him at your mercy. Nor did you smash the ball this time; instead, you turned it off slowly into the other corner. He sprinted hard and reached it, only to pop it up easily once more. And now you gathered yourself; you saw out of the tail of your eye that he had turned and had already started back desperately toward the farther corner; and you landed on that ball with all your might, beat it to the earth, and sent it bounding straight at the place he was leaving. He made a miserable, futile effort to right himself and shift his racket; then you saw him walk slowly after the ball, with his head drooping and his shoulders heaving up about his ears, and you chuckled to yourself with huge approval of your own astute play—"That got his wind, I guess."
There is a human amusement in making your antagonist run back and forth thus earnestly and desperately; but one has a more exalted satisfaction in placing a shot so sudden, swift, and accurate that the opposing player has not time to move. Teasing your man, you feel your power over a particular individual; paralyzing him by a stroke, you experience a moment of omnipotence. "There," you say, "there I sent a ball that nobody could touch." In your sublimity you may even spare a moment's compassion for the poor wretch who stands rooted in astonishment, dazed by the bolt before which champions had been powerless. You say to him condescendingly, "I caught that just right;" you may even intimate, if you are magnanimous, that you do not expect to do the thing every time. But in your heart you are boastfully hopeful, you feel that at last you have found your game, and you believe that you have the man cowed. And how is it when instead of driving your opponent before you and exhibiting a cleverness that seems really outside yourself, a super-natural precision of eye and arm, you are going down to defeat? Is there any delight in that?
From a wide range of personal experience I would modestly assert that there is. Although you realize that the doom is drawing nearer, although to avert it you put forth your mightiest efforts and only lose in strength and breath while your adversary seems to be renewing his inhuman power, you fight on, hoping even to the last that you may turn the tide and pull out a glorious victory. You make a stroke that spurs you on, you follow it with three that provoke your bitterest self-contempt, and you plant yourself with melodramatic determination in your soul and, doubtless, upon your face. "The Old Guard dies, but never surrenders;" was there no joy for them in their supreme, superb annihilation? It makes after all little difference to you emotionally whether your fight against odds is a winning or a losing one, so long as it is the best fight that you can put forward. To be in the thick of it, battering away undaunted, is the fun. Even if your opponent so far overmatches you that the outcome is hardly in question, you may have as good a time as if you stood to win; for you go in resolved to break down his cool assurance, to make him show his best efforts, to unmask and damage his strategy and gain his respect; and while you are striving with all your pigmy fury to achieve this, you now and then must pause to admire the overwhelming strokes of his resourceful master hand.
It seems fitting here to consider the theory, often advanced and seldom disputed, that a sport is the better for an element of danger. If this is true, the advocates of tennis must be dumb. Nothing worse than a sprained ankle or a wrenched knee can befall a man on a tennis court; and these, however painful, are not heroic injuries. I once heard an eloquent and distinguished man in the course of a brilliant address declare that the occasional deaths occurring in polo, in football, on the hunting field, are the price the Anglo-Saxon race pays for its position of headship and command. It was an impressive and inspiring oration; and this sentiment was echoed with a great outburst of applause. Yet it does not bear cool scrutiny. The football player will tell you that, once in the game, the possibility of injury does not occur to him; the polo player will say the same; after you have taken the first jump, danger in the hunting field does not beset you. Where there is no consciousness of danger, there is no bravery. In the heat of battle no man is a poltroon. Yes, but to take the first jump, to go into the game, it is urged; does not that compel and develop a man's courage? Only if he is physically unfit or dangerously ignorant; under other circumstances to enter a sport in which there is an element of peril is as natural as to go to bed when one is sleepy or to eat when one is hungry.
It is not the element of danger in a game which trains one to fortitude and courage; it is the element of opposition, purely. The injuries and deaths that sometimes take place in our rougher sports should not be viewed as glorifying; they are deplorable calamities, with no mitigation. It seems to me beyond debate that the game which is entirely harmless in its play, which does not imperil, is the best of all games.
Certainly of them all tennis is the most universal; small boys, girls, women, men of three generations play it, and the crack has not very much more enjoyment out of it than the duffer. So long as a player feels within him possibilities of growth he enjoys the game; and even when these fail, even when he realizes that he is slipping backward, he clings on, light-heartedly contesting every inch of the decline with some one of his contemporaries. "If I cannot keep pace with the advancing battalion, I shall not head those who are in retreat," cries your optimist; and so—because tennis players are generally optimists—you will see on any warm summer day veterans urging their old limbs upon the grassy courts, crouching in their play with racket held stiffly, trotting with little, timorous steps, poking at the ball with the gesture of uncertain vision; and you watch them awhile and think perhaps in the pride of your youth, "There can't be much fun in that." And then, while you are looking on, they begin to wrangle about some point; they are suspicious as to whether or not that ball actually did strike the line; and such verbal vitality as those four old men will then display, congregating at the net, wagging their heads, and finally examining the ball itself for traces of whitewash! You do not doubt any longer that their tennis is something of extreme moment to them; and you wonder if with your own occasional slipshod indifference to your rights on doubtful points you do not show an unworthy slight regard for a noble game.
In fact, I think that a match between old men deeply in earnest is a spectacle more inspiring to one's humanity than a tournament of champions. I do not mean that I would rather watch it; I do not deny that for a spectator in ordinary mood it is a slumberous proceeding. Yet if one is in an idle, reflective, kindly frame of mind, there is nothing so cheering to one's faith, so soothing to one's soul, so hopeful and sane and healthy as the sight of these graybeards,—venerable enough when you meet them on the street, and now scampering after a ball with the single-minded passion of a dog or a child. Their squabbles and their laughter are alike pleasant to the ear; and when they stop between sets to rest and draw their asthmatic breath, you look at them admiringly and hope that when you grow old you too may be this kind of fine old boy.