Owing to a long rain delay, I saw the fifth set of the Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Manuel Nadal, which I otherwise would likely have missed. It was a classic match, won by Nadal after six hours of struggle, and thereby ending Federer's seemingly endless streak of grass court triumphs. To those of a certain age, it called to mind John McEnroe's finally besting Bjorn Borg, at the same tournament, after years of frustration.
A great match, but it still reminded me of why I almost never watch tennis on TV. It's not easy to explain why I find tennis on TV so boring, but here are a few for starters:
1. It's largely unidimensional. Essentially the two players hit the ball until one of them hits it into the net. It's something like baseball if the only two players were the pitcher and the hitter and the only two outcomes a walk or strikeout.
2. It's almost impossible to break serve, at least in men's tennis. I didn't keep count, but there probably weren't more than 10 or 12 service breaks in a six-hour match yesterday, maybe less. To follow the baseball analogy, it's as if four out of every five batters struck out and only every fifth one or so made any contact.
3. It's too long. Nobody can watch six hours of tennis unless they have no job, no children, and probably no spouse who isn't also a tennis nut. The torture is particularly exquisite, because (unlike basketball) the match can easily turn on a point in the third set which can take place several hours before the thing finishes. This is also true of soccer, which I don't find boring at all, but the latter has 22 players and can't last more than two hours.
4. Why is it that the fans have to be quiet but the players are allowed to grunt at high volume on every point?
The flaw in all this, of course, is that it's precisely these elements--the long hours, the relentless mano a mano
focus, the absolute silence of the crowds--that makes it so riveting. Indeed, the most significant innovation of the last few decades, the introduction of the tiebraker system, has likely reduced, rather than increased, the drama. Perhaps this is the nature of life, summarized in the ubiquitous T-shirt: "no pain, no gain." Perhaps Nadal will wear this at the next match.