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By Kent Oswald

(May 26, 2010) Why only be philosophical in defeat?

In Tennis and Philosophy Liberty University Professor David Baggett and colleagues consider great ideas as played out in the 78' x 27' (or 36' for doubles) rectangle of life, win or lose. Among their intellectual pursuits are questions of who is the Greatest Of All Time; why tennis films are never any good; how John McEnroe's tantrums crossed the line into immorality; the nature of rivalry and how the stabbing of Monica Seles had the unintended consequence of diminishing the Steffi Graf legacy; and whether one can actually lose beautifully.

The first of 15 essays is the David Foster Wallace prose paean “Federer as a Religious Experience”; an intellectualization of near-inexplicable genius and a touchstone throughout the collection.

Tennis and Philosophy (with its too-trite by at least half subtitle, "What the Racket Is All About") features writing by university-based philosophers who really love thinking about tennis. While their professional familiarity is with the likes of Immanuel Kant, Alasdair MacIntyre, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Zeno and schools of thought from formalism to stoicism, they also appear comfortable as fans debating the legacy of Arthur Ashe (to whom the book is dedicated) as well as the beauty of Anna Kournikova, the burnout of Andrea Jaeger, and, of course, why tennis matters.

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In the introduction to the volume, Baggett explains his motivation for getting involved with this volume of the University Press of Kentucky's Philosophy of Popular Culture series:

"The sport still mesmerizes me. I love the strategy, the angles, the power, the challenge of it all. The thousand variables, the need for mental resilience, the rugged individualism of it, the back and forth and side to side, the spins and slices and serves —  everything about the game enthralls me as a player. Its sheer beauty, and the occasions it affords for excellence, at times have seemed to me nothing less than sublime and not infrequently have brought to mind the way Plato thought that instances of beauty in this world make our hearts ache for its truest source. When anyone ever says it’s just a game, I have to smile."

Additionally, he was kind enough to answer a few questions that still remained at reading's end.

Tennis Now:
After the work you did on your essays and in considering the thoughts of your colleagues, what do you see as the overall link between life as lived out on the tennis court and as observed by the philosopher?

David Baggett: Tennis is part of life for many; how we conduct ourselves on the court or as fans both reveals and shapes our values. Rooting for a win at any cost, putting victory before relationships, assigning primacy to appearances over reality, being a sore loser or an ungracious winner, are potential pitfalls in life just as they are in tennis. At the same time, tennis is something of a microcosm of life, where exercising discipline to achieve goals, learning to enjoy the process as much as the end result, finding an optimally relaxed and unrushed rhythm to operate at our best, developing eyes to see the beauty all around us, learning from our mistakes, strengthening our weaknesses, and having fun through it all are all crucial lessons of both life and tennis.

Tennis Now:  David Foster Wallace is not generally considered a philosopher, but in addition to your including his work he is referred to in many of the essays. Why does he, out of all commentators, play such a central role in this book?

David Baggett: Wallace wasn’t a professional philosopher like his dad, it’s true, but what makes a philosopher? Socrates never held a post as a philosophy professor, either. To be a philosopher is more what someone is than what one does for a job; some philosophy professors aren’t philosophers, and plenty of philosophers aren’t philosophy professors. Some are essayists and novelists; Wallace was both. So though Wallace wasn’t a philosopher by trade, he certainly was one by his particular cast of mind, unearthing assumptions, making connections, sharing insights. And there were two additional features he had that made him a perfect fit for the book. He loved tennis, having been a good Junior player himself, and he could see all sorts of things about the game that the rest of us miss; and his memorable way with words was nothing less than remarkable. He was a prodigiously gifted writer. Put it all together and you’ve got a guy who weaves together themes of tennis and philosophy throughout much of his work, and does so as well as [Justine] Henin hits a backhand. At the urging of some of my contributors, I wrote him before he died and asked him to consider writing something new for our book, but after he died not long thereafter the only way to include him was to get permission from his literary estate to reprint his terrific piece on Federer as religious experience. We were thrilled when they agreed.

Tennis Now:
How might this collection have been different prior to Federer's time; similarly would this be the same five years from now?

David Baggett: Federer was important to the book. His game is quintessentially beautiful, and his achievements in tennis practically unprecedented. So it was natural that he would shape some of our discussions, especially about excellence and aesthetics. Ours was the generation fortunate to watch his career unfold, and many of us had already had the privilege of watching [Pete] Sampras and [Andre] Agassi, [Martina] Navratilova and [Chris] Evert, [Bjorn] Borg and McEnroe, Graf and Seles. Each of these players and rivalries is unique, so the book, especially a few key chapters, would have definitely looked different five years ago and would look different five years from now, because they were very specific to where we’re at right now in professional tennis. But at the same time, most of the issues we explore transcend the particular periods and players and deal with more universal themes, using the particulars as instances of broader truths. The grace of a Laver is both different from and similar to the dignity of an Arthur Ashe. A kid winning gracefully and graciously against his pal on the local court looks much the same today as it did twenty or forty years ago.

Tennis Now: It seems that women's tennis engages your colleagues less and in different ways than men's. This also seems true among the general tennis fans, but if tennis is tennis, why wouldn't a work talking of tennis and philosophy treat "the games" similarly?

David Baggett: I would hope that readers would see that we spend quite a bit of time on women’s tennis. We discuss the Kournikova phenomenon, the Williams sisters, the friendship between Navratilova and Evert, dynamics of the women’s tour, the famous Riggs/King Battle of the Sexes, the fight for women’s rights and equitable pay, not to mention respectability. In a sense, I think, what justifies our handling the women’s game differently from the men’s game is not because tennis isn’t tennis, for surely it is, but simply that the dynamics and history of the men’s and women’s games are different. To ignore that history would be irresponsible and a bit myopic, as if everyone has forever thought that women’s tennis is just as legitimate as men’s tennis as a professional sport. Of course that’s true, but that almost universally granted judgment today is the result of a long battle. This is part of the reason why that almost surreal moment in the history of the game when [Billie Jean] King and [Bobby] Riggs duked it out in front of millions on television was such a poignant and historically significant episode in tennis and society. It was a moment when tennis transcended tennis. Incidentally, many of us generally prefer watching women’s tennis today over men’s tennis, because it’s not so much a power game comprised so heavily of short rallies and aces.

Tennis Now: Can you pair the tennis greats with their philosophical doppelganger?

David Baggett: I don’t want to overdo such a thing, as tempting as it is. I will say this, though: in the book we conjectured and tried to argue that Jimmy Connors represented the best sort of friend as [Friedrich] Nietzsche envisioned “star” friends. Not a warm and fuzzy guy, but someone intensely competitive, determined to maximize his potential, and who pushed those around him to their best in order to beat him, from Borg to [Ivan] Lendl to McEnroe. Friends don’t let friends be mediocre.

Tennis Now: Was your own game improved by working on the book?

David Baggett: I wish! Actually yeah, but not necessarily in the sense of making me time a forehand down the line better, unless perhaps I remember what we wrote about not pressing it, about going for higher percentage shots, and the like. But no, I think the main ways in which my game was improved was in enhancing my appreciation of the game, my recognition of excellence and enjoyment of beauty. Reflecting on tennis and life can give us a refusal to think that winning is all that matters and a wider perspective to help with handling disappointment. Even when we win, we lose a lot of points. Win or lose, there’s a way to grow in virtue and show dignity, mutual respect, and our essential humanness every time we walk out on the court, even in the crucible of a sweaty, zero-sum contest where our psyche is laid bare and our moral frailties almost inevitably make their presence felt.

Kent Oswald is the producer of the Jock Book Review, the former editor of Tennis Week and a long-time tennis journalist. He lives in New York.


 

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