Amid the titanic duel between Heather Watson and Serena Williams on centre court yesterday, one moment of distilled fascination rose from the roaring chaos. After hours of war in the gathering London heat; after rallies packed with yearning and exchanges fraught with peril; after wild oscillations of power observed by a partisan crowd of raw emotion, Heather, the home darling, was tasked with delivering a second serve to the great Serena, who hungered for match point.
The crowd, once raucous, settled to a gentle hush. Heather, once ahead, paused in the grim throes of furthest concentration. Imagine the pressure. Imagine the weight of a nation looming on your shoulders; the sense of impending doom nagging at the back of your mind. Defeat lingers closer than ever, replacing victory in the foremost enclaves of a hyperactive mind. Don’t miss, your conscience barks. Don’t miss.
Remarkably, Heather didn’t miss. Her second serve sliced tantalisingly over the net, flirting with oblivion, and landed fairly in Serena’s court, to our collective relief. Regardless of what happened next, I was totally immersed in the wonder of that moment; in the triumph of human discipline over primeval doubt. To me, a mere mortal possessing no such gene of athletic prowess, the act of completing that second serve, under such duress, was a minor miracle. It was totally engrossing, totally fascinating. It was a glimpse into the ineffable genius of the elite sporting hero.
Of course, Heather went on to lose, as Serena called upon unchartered reserves of determination, but my mind was still fixated on that wonderfully compelling moment. How did Heather do it?, I thought, furnished with a new perspective and deeper respect for tennis than ever before. How do they do it, these superhuman tennis stars?
How do they combat the pressure inextricably attached to every point? How do they suppress the native uncertainty, the inevitable skepticism, the fatalistic thoughts of humankind? How do they stand alone out there, cast in the shadows of an expectant stadium crammed with believers, and overcome the knocking temptation of self-implosion?
To the casual masses, Watson’s mesmeric feat was likely lost in the moment, the drama, the end result. In amongst the throbbing maelstrom of a pulsating encounter, filled with shining peaks and gloomy troughs, it was a needle in a haystack, a drop in the ocean. But, to me, it was inexplicably amazing. It was an act of untold bravery, nerve and courage beyond mortal kin. Right then, something clicked, and I realised that tennis is unquestionably the most gruelling ordeal in the sporting lexicon.
I was always aware of the physical excursion; of the need for impeccable fitness and outrageous stamina merely to survive. After all, tennis is a game of constant action, in which the combatants fly from line to line, pursuing a ball destined to bounce twice before meeting their racket. During the course of a match, players sprint forward, jog back, lurch right, chase left, leap high and stoop low, as the body endures a barrage of screaming abuse. Yet, now, I acknowledge that such a toll is at least matched by the mental aspect; by the almost traumatic psychology required to win, or at least to stave off defeat.
Tennis, ultimately, is a game of undulating texture, with capricious swings of momentum and innumerable false dawns on the road to final glory. It’s perhaps the only sport in which absolutely every moment is shrouded in skull-rattling pressure. In the flow of action, there’s pressure to reach the ball propelled awkwardly out of reach by the opponent. In the few quite moments, during changeovers and before serves, there’s pressure to perform, to deliver, to trust your arm to somehow hit that ball between those lines and over that net before thousands of those discerning eyes. Throughout, the spectre of failure is a constant companion, a devil in the heart. Don’t miss, he whispers. You’ll regret it.
Thus, to me, it’s a wonder that more tennis players haven’t succumbed entirely to the pressure; to the constant bombardment of thought and counter-thought, dream and counter worry. The game requires almost repulsive level of contemplation and discipline, for which I now have a fresh and genuine respect.
Heather Watson may have lost, but in her valorous tussle with the greatest woman ever to grasp a racket, she taught me something new about a sport I’d hitherto overlooked as mere entertainment.
Tennis is more than that. It’s a war between two rivals, but also a conflict with the voice within.