The infinite value of tennis

The infinite value of tennis

"All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football." So goes the most famous – if slightly revised – utterance of author and philosopher Albert Camus. I could say the same about tennis, the playing and watching of which has provided me with three key lessons in life.

Lesson 1: Becoming yourself

For every Federer there is a Nadal in the same way that every superman has his kryptonite.

For every Federer there is a Nadal in the same way that every superman has his kryptonite.

Photo: Getty Images

Through tennis I have learnt to appreciate the richness and diversity of the human form; that is, how we become ourselves in an infinite number of ways.

Consider that no two service motions are exactly the same or ever should be. There are a myriad of variations and permutations to a player's posture, stance, position, preparation, back arch and wrist flick that determines how the ball is struck and how each point begins.

Indeed, to fathom what goes on during that silent millisecond in a serve as the ball hovers in the air, is to understand a great deal about the constitution and conduct of the person whose beseeching finger is pointing at it.


It is sometimes said that there is nothing natural about a natural golf swing. The same could be said of a tennis serve, which requires endless practice to find and refine that action that's yours alone. And then there's the second serve, which is in many ways even more character building and revealing, because it shows how one manages one's faults.

Lesson 2: How to relate to others

A tennis match marks the coming together of people of different sizes, styles, backgrounds and strategies. For every Federer there is a Nadal in the same way that every superman has his kryptonite. Thus it's common for me to be thrashed by Opponent X one day, only to beat Opponent Y the next, who then defeats Opponent X the day after.

But of course it is not all about winning, losing or even competing. Indeed, a real intimacy can form between tennis players across the net just as warriors can come to know and respect one another in battle. And there's always the possibility of teaming up with that rival in a game of doubles and forging in the intense heat of a tie-break, a camaraderie that will last a lifetime.

Tennis has also helped me learn about my community. As a young boatperson, the tennis club gave me the opportunity to connect with people across cultures, classes and generations. The customs and traditions of the sport were pathways for me to enter and integrate into my adopted society.

Today, tennis is not so much gentrified as aspirational. The proliferation of new migrants who can be found at most local clubs reflects the players from 'new money' countries who now populate the professional tours. Tennis, as a microcosm of life and world affairs, is a rich tapestry.

Lesson 3: The human condition

From the infinite possibilities in each tennis game, we can learn much about our finite human existence and the constant hope of redemption.

The potential endlessness of a tennis match was most evident during Wimbledon 2010 when John Isner defeated Nicholas Mahut after 183 games, the final set being 70-68. Both players no doubt left the court better and wiser men. Over eleven hours and three rain-interrupted days, every sporting cliche must have gained a new and profound meaning for them: the best defence is offence; give 110 percent; take it one step/point at a time; and the ball is in your court.

For my father (also an avid tennis fan) success on and off the court consists of three things: hard work, talent and a little bit of luck. Often luck does not fall in one's favour. A broken string, a gust of wind, an unwelcomed phone call, a ball that strikes a pebble or teeters on the net cord before dropping back, can turn a glorious victory into a crushing defeat. This is when tennis offers one of life's most valuable lessons: that even in the presence of honourable people, steadfast rules, and an attentive umpire, justice is never guaranteed. Get over it.

Therefore, taking into account everything that Nick Kyrgios has said and done in recent times, I found this 2015 comment from him most shocking, "I don't really like the sport of tennis that much".

Kim Huynh teaches international relations at the Australian National University, and is a member of Belconnen Tennis Club.

Most Viewed in National


Morning & Afternoon Newsletter

Delivered Mon–Fri.

By signing up you accept our privacy policy and conditions of use