String Theory

Tennistically Musical

Why should I write about music and tennis, not to mention the rest of the world? What do they have in common? On the surface, not that much. Music is a universal art, enjoyed by regular folk and the privileged alike; until recently tennis was thought of as an elite country-club sport. Not so anymore! Tennis is hit, sliced and volleyed from Cyprus to Chicago and Nantucket to Novosibirsk. With the arrival of personalities like Andre “Image is everything” Agassi or the Williams sisters, anyone who loves tennis has models to emulate. And with China’s conservatories literally bursting at the seams with millions of students, who can say that classical music is going extinct?

Practised at the highest levels, both music and tennis can transcend the ordinary to reach the level of high art. One could compare Stefan Edberg or Martina Navratilova’s high-wire acts to virtuoso showcases by Paganini, Liszt or Wieniawski. On the other hand, Rafa Nadal seems more “Brahmsian” to me with his topspin and physicality, while Sharapova is Tchaikovsky. She just is. All strings and brass, all the time.

For those who love Opera, consider the following cast of characters: the over-the-top drama of Italian Opera in John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Wagnerian tragedy in the lives of Monica Seles and Arthur Ashe, or Leconte and Gasquet’s play in the ”Symphonie Fantastique” spirit - although that’s not really an opera at all. But since there is one about The Great Gatsby – by John Harbison, apparently… Roger Federer should undoubtedly be cast as the main protagonist. He would fit in perfectly in a gentrified social setting, if it wasn’t for the badass brilliance of his game.

There are amongst the women - mostly Eastern Europeans, like Jelena Jankovic, Daniela Hantuchova, Anna Chakvetadze – players who have escaped the rigors of their musical (although I’m not convinced of her talent!) practice regimen in favor of a different kind of drilling. Which would you chose? An F# minor fingered octave scale or a volleying drill in the blaring heat? The practice room can be a dark place, so there’s something to be said about following the sun around the world! Although Cincinnati seems to be pretty stifling at the moment…

What of the strings alluded to in this blog’s title? Many tennis players listen for the pitch coming off their racquet strings by gently tapping two racquets together to check for the desired tension (as do the stringers!). They’re not quite “playing” their racquet, or even tuning them on the spot like instrumentalists, but they certainly use their ears. In the age of Luxilon, do any of the current stars have perfect pitch? During a match, players can first tell what sort of stroke has been hit by the sound coming off their opponents’ racquet. How about a change of pace in the middle of a rally – a player suddenly coming to the net, or playing a drop shot? That’s rhythm, say like a steady 4/4 pulse suddenly disrupted by syncopation, jazz-like. As you can see, many things in tennis make me think of music, and certain things in music make me think of tennis!

We’ll discuss the US Open run-up next time. It’s gonna be an interesting one…

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