We’re in the middle of the U.S. Open, that two-week phase of the solar year in which the average American citizen is most likely to be struck by tennis. It could be you. Or maybe you’ll watch 10 minutes of tennis and yell, “This shit is boring!” before returning to episodes of Chopped. Nobody would blame you, because unless you know what to look for, tennis might just look like Pong with sentient paddles, and that isn’t very fun. You’ll get no help from the commentators, who are either hollering empty sports clichés into the void— “she just wants this win more”—or reeling off jargon too dense to parse—“on the ad side he likes a heavy kick serve out wide.” The good news for you is that I am here, and I will tell you what to look for in order to unlock the underlying sensory pleasures of the game.
The ball has to be hit before it bounces twice on your side. You will notice that a tennis player does not just stand there and allow the ball to bounce twice; the player is usually trying very hard to prevent this from happening. There’s a lot of options as to how to avoid the fate, but you really have to hit the ball before it bounces twice, or you lose, okay? Okay. Here are some options:
The forehand is struck with dominant hand, on your dominant side. If you’ve ever whaled at a tennis ball just to see how far you could it could go, this is probably how you did it. In fact, when confronted with a projectile moving at alarming speed, and armed with a waffly-looking paddle, this might be the body’s most instinctive way of responding, and for the majority of players, it’s their smoothest and most reliable shot.
The backhand is struck with either two hands or (more rarely these days, and always savored) one hand. Together the forehand and backhand are considered groundstrokes. They are usually swung from low to high, after the ball has bounced once on the ground in front of the player. If you’re hitting the ball out of the air before it even bounces, you’re hitting volleys, and you’re either an idiot, or Roger Federer, or reasonably close to the net that’s sitting in the middle of the court.
Every point in tennis begins with a serve. The serve is big and strong and, except for the most wonderful and deceitful exceptions, struck over your head after tossing the ball way up there. So powerful is the serve that the default expectation is that you win games when you are serving. If you manage to win a game on an opponent’s serve, you have “broken” them, at least in tennis terms, if not animal domestication terms. The serve goes fast, and is usually aimed well out of opponent’s reach, or right at their dumb body.
The simplest and basest pleasure of watching tennis is appreciating just how unfathomably fast the objects are moving. Racket moves fast to hit ball. Ball now moves fast. Feet move fast to get near ball that’s moving fast. Everything moves fast. Fast is fun. The fastest serves spring off a racket at over 140 mph. The fastest groundstrokes can push 100 mph, at the most extreme end. Although the typical TV vantage point takes away full appreciation of this speed as a trade-off for seeing the whole court, if you ever need a wake-up call, try a view closer to court-level:
If, as asked above, you ever tried whaling at a tennis ball to get it move that fast, you’ve probably hit it clean over the back fence. To keep it in play requires the right racket/string tech, artful application of spin, and, mostly, timing. If you’ve looked carefully at a tennis player—lithe and ropey but with no real volume, no paunch or superfluous swole—you know that sheer muscle mass has little to do with the power of their shots. Really, it’s a feat of coordination involving every single part of your body—everything from feet to hips to shoulder to wrist—to transfer energy to the ball. This needs to all happen right on cue, because the shots they hit are only viable within perfect conditions; the racket has to strike the ball in a tiny window of time and space for desired effect. That all this could still be executed at full-sprint is just ridiculous. Reflexes, reaction time, coordination ... this is stuff you’ve already marveled at in home runs, saved goals, so on.
But but but: as fun as raw speed is, you should also keep an eye out for those anomalous moments when the players choose to hit the ball, slowly, softly. These are often the most difficult and finessed shots, the result of an excruciating risk/reward calculus. So pay attention.
Speed offers you the visceral rush, but most of the meaningful decision-making happens on this level, and most of the viewer’s genuine poop-oneself moments happen on this level, too. I know roughly how hard the player is going to hit any given ball, but I really don’t know much about where they’re going to hit it, and herein lies most of the creativity and craft. So where do you put the ball? Mostly you want to put the ball away from your opponent. But there are other considerations, too.
The most basic criterion is to get the ball over the net. The net droops a little in the middle so easiest clearance can be found there, and hardest clearance (about six inches higher) is on the edges. If you hit the ball into the net, you lose.
The next most basic criterion is to get the ball to land inside the painted boundaries of the court. If you hit the ball outside those boundaries, you lose.
Now combine those two and you’ll see where things get tricky. To clear the net the ball has to be moving at a healthy height off the ground (i.e., at least 3 feet off the ground). To land inside the court the ball has to very suddenly be at a very different height off the ground (i.e. zero inches). In a nutshell, this is the reason that the game is difficult: You have to satisfy both criteria, have the strike the ball in a way so that it goes high and then all the way low, and generally you’re hitting this ball very hard, and you have to wrangle its trajectory with lots of spin and lots of very fine calibration of the angle of your racket face in order to get it to dip down to your bidding. A homer can fly out of the park; a tennis ball needs to come back home.
Let’s say you’re standing in this part of the court, which, as it turns out, is a perfectly okay place to be standing in the middle of a tennis match. Broadly speaking there are two types of shots available to you, and there are tradeoffs.
That’s someone hitting the ball right back along the sideline, or, colloquially, down the line. This is a nice, assertive shot, often struck to kill when an opponent is still scrambling around on the opposite side of the court. The disadvantages here are as follows: The net is half a foot higher there, meaning you’re more likely to hit it, and the court is just 78 feet long along that horizontal.
But you can also hit the ball cross-court. The advantages here are that the net droops lower here, so you’re less likely to hit it, and the tennis court, which is your everyday rectangle—remember your basic geometry—is longest along its diagonal, giving you an extra 4.5 feet of landing strip. This might seem insignificant, but this is a game of margins much, much finer than feet. Obviously tennis is a game of flowing back-and-forth, and not every shot can be neatly slotted into a binary, but consider these rough notions about shot selection as you watch a match.
We saw a cross-court shot above, but imagine an even more severely angled shot:
What the heck are you thinking here? For one, looking at the court geometry, you have very little landing strip available—which is a pretty handy proxy for how aggressive a shot is. You had to trust that ball to dip very rapidly after clearing the net, had to somehow coax it to from down to up and back down again. But you have also probably hit the ball very far away from the opponent, something difficult to retrieve. This is a bold shot, the kind of thing that can just leave you with the ache of appreciation. Other simple heuristics for recognizing bravery in this sport: Is the ball hit close to the lines, maybe even kissing the lines? That’s cool. Is it hit so gently as to be impossible to retrieve? That’s cool. Is it hit right past an opponent who was standing at the net? That’s cool. Was it hit while mid-sprint, with almost no time to prepare? That’s cool, too.
Tennis is nice in that every single match offers a little, self-contained comparison. So always look for the contrasts. Anytime you are watching two people play, you should try to discern how their styles of play vary. Most thinking pros (so, not all of them) have logged enough hours to know themselves deeply, understand their own gifts and limitations, and they have devised strategies that maximize their chance of winning within those parameters.
As you watch a match and recognize patterns, you’ll begin to appreciate strengths: what are the shots they rely on most to win points? where do they prefer to stand during the point? where do they like to hit the ball? And weaknesses: what type of shots do they consistently mess up? what opposing strategies give them trouble? what was the precise emotional inflection point at which Nick Kyrgios abandoned all hope?
By asking those questions you’ll begin to grasp a sense of style. Is the player super-fit and consistent and content to grind forever, until the opponent flubs or delivers something weak enough to crush? Maybe it’s Andy Murray. Does the player make a tennis ball look like a bouncy ball with the weight of a bowling ball? That’s the Rafael Nadal signature. Does the player make a living on the basis of a huge serve and little else? That’s John Isner, the great unwatchable American hope, or Milos Raonic, Canada’s dull analogue. Does the player serve briskly and roam all over the court to strike the ball almost soon as it lands, as if impatient to get off the court? That’s the Federer Express. Does the player overwhelm the opposition with fast and risky groundstrokes? That’s Maria Sharapova or Jelena Ostapenko. Once you can recognize general styles of play, you can appreciate which player is doing a better job of executing their game plan, and viewing gets a lot richer than just watching two interchangeable bodies bat a ball over a net. You’ll also learn which styles you prefer watching, which is the most useful kind of knowledge, so you can avoid the boring crap.
It’s much better idea to get caught up in the above aspects of the game than to get bogged down in the most antiquated part: the scoring. Stick with the pleasures of the actual exchange. You’ll know who has won or lost any given point. From there, just know that you have to win lots of points, which are bundled into games, which are then bundled into sets. At the U.S. Open men have to win best of five sets, and women have to win best of three. You’ll pick up the finer points as you go along, or Google as necessary. Or, you never will understand the scoring, and you will, baffled, continue to subject yourself to an endless procession of spheres moving back and forth without any real understanding of the governing principles, like some kind of shitty ancient astronomer.
Okay, now that we’re out of the technical weeds, can we just savor how fun the sounds are? Not referring to the death/sex moans the players emit when they hit the ball, announcing their exertion to the world; those aren’t that all that great and sometimes they are actively bad. I mean the actual moment of contact between a racket and a ball. It is beautiful to listen to: a satisfying, hearty thwack, the sound of an object being given the business. Eventually, with lots of practice, the sounds can actually offer you valuable information about how the ball has been struck—what kind of pace and spin has been applied—but that’ll come much later on in your journey. For now just appreciate how a forehand sings when it’s passing 100 mph, passing right by an opponent, passing by your eyes almost too fast to register.
For all the game’s efforts to sterilize itself, preserve propriety, and eradicate any undue expression of personality, tennis is populated by some real eccentrics, and getting to know them is a huge part of the fun of fandom. There are no teams, no pads, no helmets, just individual people on a diagrammed rectangle trying to make a living. As our own Laura Wagner has argued, tennis is one of the most mentally grueling sports you can subject yourself to, a constant state of lonely pressure, with no one to blame but yourself, and unending opportunities to dwell on past mistakes in between every point. That kind of pressure can make a person crack, letting their real colors leak out. There is racket-smashing. There is direct trash-talking. There is abject tanking. There is genuine showmanship. There is choking. There is kvetching to umps and occasionally throwing coins at them. All of these moments accumulate over a career and let you understand what a person is like.
In some cases, you can draw a straight line between a personality and a style of play:
Maybe we can just end there. If that reel doesn’t entertain you at least a little bit, you should probably just give up on tennis and get back to Chopped. And if you have any lingering questions, feel free to ask.