Just tell me the score
I sometimes think tennis is the greatest sport. I love cricket and football too – the latter is my constant companion – but when the tennis hots up, it has an intensity and rawness that’s as hard to beat as Rafael Nadal on clay.
A lot of things make this the case, but the gladiatorial element is key: one human being, pitted against another in a rarefied battle of skill and psychological poise. Team sports, of course, provide plenty of extra nuance, but there’s something thrillingly fundamental about the self-reliance of the on-court tennis player, and the turmoil he or she must endure, alone, that aces me every time.
It’s like boxing, but without the whole people-actually-hitting-each-other thing. Instead, tennis has that metaphorical mystique which distinguishes all the best sports, raising them above mere pastimes or competitions into something properly theatrical. We understand what our heroes experience because what they’re actually doing – hitting balls to and fro for points – provides an abstract canvas onto which their fears, dreams and demons are projected in the most comprehensible form.
This remarkable purity – call it theatrical, call it dramatic, call it performative (actually no, don’t call it that) – raises interesting questions when it comes to how we consume sport. After all, there are now as many ways of watching tennis as there are strokes in Novak Djokovic’s shot locker. You could be at the match, watching on TV, listening to Five Live’s (and in particular Jonathan Overend’s) superb radio coverage or – if you’re stuck in an office – following play-by-play updates online.
Loving the latter for cricket (step forward The Guardian, and in particular the brilliant Rob Smyth), I automatically default to game-by-game coverage of big tennis matches when I’m at work. But over the years, however immediate the updates or brilliant the writer, I’ve come to find that this kind of coverage fails to capture the real ebb and flow – the dramatic heartbeat – of a match. It’s as though tennis has an elusive quality which, unlike cricket, makes game-by-game updates unsatisfactorily retrospective. The drama’s there, but it’s being relayed after the event, having already to some extent been digested to make a tidy whole-game summary.
It was because of this that, last week, I discarded Katy Murrells’s game-by-game Guardian coverage of Laura Robson’s Australian Open victory against Petra Kvitova (right), and went seeking a point-by-point approach instead. Since timings preclude written summaries of each point, my only option was to watch the unembellished scoreboard, updating in real time on the tournament website. And what happened? To my surprise, the simple statistical experience of watching the scores accumulate was every bit as intense as watching the match live.
In a way, I suppose, this isn’t surprising. Given even the most sketchy details, we’re all blessed with the capacity to overlay prior knowledge, experiences and emotions to flesh out any given scenario. And since those embellishments come from deep within us, the impact is often more powerful than if we’d experienced events in their original form. Hence the pictures being better on radio, and the potency of the written word, where even the most assiduous authors will have their descriptive efforts enriched by the reader’s imagination.
In sporting terms, however, it’s not so simple. I’ve never got the same thrill from watching a cricket scorecard or, heaven knows, a football score refresh in real time (sorry, Ceefax). Perhaps it’s a sign of my own limitations, but there’s just not enough context – not enough sense of unravelling tactics, statistical detail, near-misses or disciplinary incidents – to make emotional sense of the raw data I’m being fed.
So why is tennis different? After all, given just the scoreboard, all you really know is… well, the score, plus some prior knowledge of the players, and a vague sense of each rally’s length, based on how long the score takes to refresh. Yet somehow the standalone tennis scoreboard still works, firing the imagination into vivid evocations of a game’s tension and drama. And the reason, surely, is all to do with tennis’s astonishing, one-in-a-million scoring system.
It’s hard to articulate why this is so special. For me, it’s the fact that, with just four needed to win a game, every single point exerts psychological pressure on one or other player, combined with the fact that success isn’t winning as many points as possible, but winning the most important. That, of course, has to do with the paramount significance of service breaks, which invests each moment with game-changing potential, and creates all manner of curiosities, like the person serving first in the final set having a real psychological advantage – the numbers alone applying potentially match-winning pressure.
I could go on, but thankfully there’s no need. Because, as I discovered last week, the best advice to anyone unfamiliar with the joy of tennis scoring is to pick a match, choose your favoured player, then watch the points unfold on the scoreboard alone. Unencumbered by the distraction of images, commentary or stadium atmosphere, it’s the perfect distillation of tennis’s greatest asset – and arguably all you need to experience the amazing emotional flux of one of the world’s greatest sports.