Lawn Tennis

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.

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