I grew up with a father who played golf for “the fun of it.” He loved being outside, walking the course, enjoying the sunshine. His score wasn’t that important. Sure he wanted to do his best, maybe beat his personal records. But he loved the social and physical experience above all. Much more than besting his fellow players.
These days I bump into tennis opponents who “play for blood.” They are dominated by the need to win at all costs. They become enraged if they miss a shot. They yell at their doubles partner if he hits a ball into the net. And they will hit to the weakest player on the other team over and over and over, rather than mix up their placements to their opponent’s side of the court.
What is that all about, I keep wondering? Sure I do my best to win, run hard after each ball, focus on serves, well-placed shots, return unexpected gets. I strive throughout to hit where they ain’t. But if I lose a point, I frown—sometimes I curse—and get ready for the next shot. If my partner blows an easy one, I recall that I’ve missed a slew too. If we lose in a long rally, I shrug, smile and praise the victors. I am glad for all the excitement, good exercise and harmless tension.
For me it is all just a game. I can’t seem to get too upset on the court, when other less fortunate people are losing their jobs, watching storms destroy their houses or being maimed by suicide bombers. But for some locals I know, these sports entertainments are not just a game. It appears they are contests to assert dominance, build ego, establish superiority, enhance personal stature and to prove that they are better than I am. At least I think that might be the real aim of their victory.
I know that I am competitive when I run after the ball that no one else might have retrieved, practice in between matches for hours with a ball machine, against a wall or hitting serves. I took two-hour lessons almost every week for a year to improve my performance in the beginning. I believe I am clearly serious about becoming a stronger player. And though I have only been playing less than 2 1/2 years, and some of my competitors (aged 45 to 93) have been playing regularly since they were kids, I can often hold my own and earn their respect. At least they will play me weekly or call me to be a substitute. So I am good enough to give them a challenging game. Or beat them.
But I just don’t have that killer instinct they do. I am never out to draw blood. Maybe it is parental role modeling that’s ingrained in me. Yet I’d like to better understand their motivations.
I know people who are driven to win, be it tennis, golf or other games. Maybe they were active athletes in high school and college. Maybe they have competed their whole lives, been taught that winning is everything, been judged on their performance. Maybe they were on school teams, and their results recorded and publicized in newspapers. Maybe their defeats were just too embarrassing.
When I lost at any sport in the past, my failure disappeared into a cloud of forgotten facts. I could start afresh in each new contest or institution. The only teams I was ever on were in Little League baseball for kids under 12 and in a Saturday bowling league that had nothing to do with high school and wasn’t noted beyond the alley bulletin board. It really didn’t matter once I moved on. Or maybe ever.
I was pretty good for a kid. As an 11-year old pitcher, my throws were so puny and slow—but accurate— that batters always swung way before the ball reached the plate. In those six-inning games (18 batters minimum), I sometimes struck out 13 guys. When I was bowling as a teenager, if I didn’t knock over 200 pins, I was unimpressed. And if my three-game total was under 500 (that’s a 167 average), I was definitely disappointed. But I don’t ever remember being furious or depressed.
And then I was often on the nearby golf course enjoying tackle football without any protective gear. It was a rough sport for little kids who were probably not even teen-aged. We played hard, and sometimes there were broken limbs. But I still have no memories of pounding people who were down, punching to weaken guys for the next play. It was always just a game.
So I wonder about the psychology involved with my adult competitors these days. Are these guys who become so upset on the court or golf course trying to make up in sport for frustrations in the rest of their lives? Maybe they hadn’t had the job or money success they yearned for. But most of them seem affluent and accomplished. Maybe they regret other disappointments. So now when they play tennis, they are at least going to be best at that?
Can we ever know? Probably not. Who’s to judge what a man’s mind is permutating? I will never know his net worth and how he compares it to his self worth. His balance sheet could be $10 million, but he thinks he should have $50 million. He could have a kid in Princeton who couldn’t make the admissions cut at Harvard. And his wife might be gorgeous, but a blonde rather than a redhead like the movie star he admires.
So with all those inner shortcomings, the tennis court is the perfect place to make up for his frustration…as long as he wins. As long as he is supremely successful. And maybe it’s none of this amateur analyzing. Maybe he has just been brought up in the culture of competing. You don’t play just for “the fun of it.” You play to reach your goal, which is to win, and you also gain the glory and satisfaction.
Today at tennis I asked some of the people there. “It all goes back to their childhood,” one man claimed. “Maybe they were taught they had to win, or their father compared them to their siblings, or their coach praised them in victory and scolded them in defeat.” Another player said, “They were probably competitive in business, and it’s an attitude that carries over in all aspects of their life.” A woman said, “If they can’t accept losing, they are probably unhappy people.”
I guess I understand it better if someone is playing singles. It’s all up to him alone. But many of my contemporaries are only fit enough to play doubles. So they are dependent on their partners to help them be victorious. Thus the anger at their teammate’s missed ball. Their strategy to win at any cost as they instruct me in a mouth-covered whisper to “Hit all your shots to Joe, because he is the weaker player.” Or to not call a ball out if you can get away with it. “I thought it was out,” one man will tell me, “but they are supposed to call it on their side, not me.”
Jeez. This is not the Superbowl with millions of betting dollars at stake! It’s just some older—all right, old—men running around in the sun on a weekday to celebrate their thrill at being alive and still able to hit a ball with a racket without dropping dead. Although that sometimes does happen. Do you have to cheat to make a point? To win a game? To win the set? I don’t get it.
Now I do understand major disappointments in other contexts. You want to buy your perfect house, and someone else outbids you. Awful. You invest in the stock market to make money, but the trend heads south after you finally commit, and you lose half your money. That is very upsetting. You decide to ask out a girl you admired, and as you approach her (as I actually did one year long ago), she is showing her friends her new engagement ring.
Those are times when life is not a game. When winning really matters, and failure is terrible. You can be crushed at losing to someone else who was there first or smarter or had inside connections. I remember a friend who was dying of cancer walking around my house and farm asking me, “How come you have all this and good health? I should have it instead of you.” He had lost the lottery of life and died two months later. I was the winner in that contest he created between us. And that was not a game. I understand his pain at losing that battle.
But a tennis game? Not even one where the results are tallied on a club ladder? Way beyond my mental grasp. Can you help explain it to me? Please? I’d really appreciate it.