woman playing tennis

Why is Tennis So Confusing? (But Wimbledon is So Cool!)

This week I’ve spent hours watching Wimbledon of my own free will, and I’ve actually enjoyed it. I don’t know what part of that sentence shocks me most. I’m so proud of myself, I really think someone should send me a complimentary Wimbledon towel. Or maybe a basket of strawberries and clotted cream.

Total tennis newbie

As a kid, I used tennis courts to rollerblade and play badminton. (Sometimes at the same time.) My sister and I had the unfortunate predicament of owning badminton equipment, but no net. On summer afternoons, we’d hit birdies back and forth on the tennis court, wearing visors, a poor imitation of Venus and Serena Williams. We had to stand three feet from the net in order to do this with any success. Due to the lack of line judges, there were rampant accusations of unfair play, and we got bored fast.

In college, a gracious roommate offered to teach me real tennis. Haili won her fair share of tournaments playing doubles in high school. She was gracious and patient with me, but I didn’t hit many balls. It was a lot harder than badminton. Lack of talent, interest, and exposure meant I reached adulthood ignorant of the rules of tennis.

People who like sports in general have this super-human capacity to know stuff about all sports, even ones they don’t follow. Tennis is low on Alex’s list; he never has it on T.V. or talks about it. So when I asked him to explain the rules to me, I wasn’t expecting the comprehensive primer I got, delivered off-the-cuff and without any refresher. He defined the terminology and explained how matches work, the differences between men’s and women’s tennis, and why grass is harder than clay.

How do you know all that? I asked. I don’t know, it’s easy, he said. Plus, I’ve played Mario Tennis.

Why is tennis so confusing?

Rafael Nadal is playing some guy from Spain. Grunt, grunt, grunt…  It’s match point, Alex says. How do you know? He gestures to the little box in the corner of the T.V. screen, where there are columns and arrows I can’t make out.

The scoring is its own language, and the first few games mess with my head. I don’t understand the way points work. Why do we surge upwards in this strange pattern of 15-30-40? After a few games, I start to catch on to what the words mean, although not without some questions:

  • “Love” is zero points, which is totally counterintuitive to me. I think “love” is a happy word that should correlate with winning!
  • “All” means you’re tied. So “15-all” is actually “15-15.” Which is also technically “1-1.” Which is unnecessarily complicated, IMHO.
  • “Deuce” means it’s 40-40, or technically 3-3. Okaaaay….
  • If you’re in a “deuce” situation, you need to win by 2. Easy enough. Except if you get a point, the score doesn’t change. You just have the “advantage.” Why?
  • “Let” means the ball touched the net. Fine, but they could have just said “Re-do,” and we’d all be much clearer on what’s happening.

It takes help from a professional to really cement the scoring in my head. At a family dinner on Friday night, Alex’s cousin’s husband Scott, who is a tennis coach, kindly plays a hypothetical game with me over burgers and corn-on-the-cob. (As expected, he wins the imaginary game, although I do score a few points so we can have a few tie scenarios.) When I ask him why the scoring is so complicated, he says it’s just how the game works, but he agrees it could be a bit simpler.

And at its foundational level, tennis really is pretty straightforward. You start with points, earned in games, played in sets, which make up matches. At Wimbledon, the men have to win three of five sets, and the women must win best of three. This could take hours, even days (or, as I’ve learned, in the case of the longest match in history, 11 hours and 5 minutes over the course of three days).

They say tennis is a lifetime sport, but now I’m amazed people play this well into their 60s and 70s. Clearly, to be good at tennis, you need physical skill, mental finesse, and stamina. (And a cute visor.)

Wowed by Wimbledon

Today, we watch Roger Federer from Switzerland, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, play the last match of the week at Wimbledon. I check Twitter to see what’s being said about the match. People are commenting on his serve-and-volley style, the beauty of his play, his power. He’s 35 and has won Wimbledon seven times. The crowd roars every time he wins a point. Roger has played for hours, and he doesn’t even look out of breath.

The formality of tennis surprises me. Everyone is so still and quiet during play. When Roger sits down to drink some water, a ball girl stands ramrod-straight at attention by his side. He dries his face with a special Wimbledon towel and tosses it to her. I love to watch the ball kids scurry around. Apparently, over 250 kids serve as ball girls and boys at Wimbledon each year. They start training in February, which explains their speed retrieving balls and their efficient, confident care for the athletes.

Actual play aside, as with nearly anything English, I find Wimbledon charming. The world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament, it’s clearly steeped in tradition. The all-white uniforms, the grass courts, the famous strawberries, grown locally and served with fresh cream. At Wimbledon, the venue looks less like a sporting event than a country club, with people clinking glasses of champagne, listening to live bands play outside the courts, and wearing fancy dresses and suits.

Roger Federer wins his match. Dusk is falling. At Wimbledon, there are no lights on the courts, so the tournament will end before dark. Today is the five-year anniversary of his last title. I wonder if someone will give him complimentary strawberries and scones to celebrate.

Having made progress in my sports fluency today, I feel victorious, too. Maybe I’ll make some scones.


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