The Emotional Intensity of Live Tennis

By Jack Edward

Trigger warning: profanity is used throughout this piece.

At around 3pm on Wednesday, Andy Murray started his match in Doha against Taro Daniel. An hour and a half later, he emerged victorious and I hadn’t seen a single point of the 6-2 6-2 drubbing.

Whilst our hero was (apparently) running circles ‘round his conqueror from Australia, I was in a dreary leisure centre in Scotstoun, Glasgow, watching my first professional match in person since filling my life entirely with tennis about a year ago.

The Scotstoun Leisure Center.

For those unaware, my time is taken up coaching wee ones, writing analytical pieces on professional matches, or hosting a podcast on tour tennis. I’m from an engineering background so melding my passion with my expertise made sense – I’ve gotten decent(ish) at scrutinising matches from a technical perspective, looking for patterns of play and tactics. When a match is done and dusted, I can sip a black coffee, lean into a swivel chair and get to work on a tidy article.

Today’s experience called for a far less organised, non-technical piece. Today’s experience pushed me out of my comfort zone. Not only did I have no coffee to guzzle or a lovely office chair to recline it, I was forced into feeling the match instead of dissecting it.

I hope you enjoy my retelling of a rollercoaster of a day watching live tennis and that Andy can forgive me for missing his match.

*****

The tournament was a W25 ITF event, one of the lower tournaments on the rungs of the professional tennis ladder.

I was there to watch someone from my local tennis club compete in the first-round – Anna Brogan, world #917, qualifier, fantastic tennis player. Ordinarily however, from the comfort of my home, Anna would be just another name, just another ranking, another set of strengths and weaknesses to compare to another set of strengths and weaknesses.

I sat myself down, front row, a metre away from the court, a smattering of spectators muttering behind me. I tried not to make eye-contact with Anna as I sat down. I had told her I’d try to attend one of her matches this week but all of a sudden I was there and I didn’t want to put her off and she probably wouldn’t even wave back if I waved – in fact she DEFINITELY wouldn’t wave back, she’s a professional, for fuck’s sake!

I looked over my right shoulder to find somewhere else to look. Anton Matusevich (the ATP world number 460) was standing waiting at the sidelines with his arms crossed. 

Right, refocus. I could treat this like any other match, right? I’m here to support Anna but why not do a bit of analysis at the same time??? 

***You can’t switch this shit off for one fucking match, for someone you actually know and like, you fuck?!***

Well, maybe a post-match breakdown could help Anna… or at the very least, you could pretend this counts as work…

Fine.

*****

I studied away to myself for the first set (which Anna won 6-3), taking notes on my phone.

Anna Brogan: World #917, 23 years old, laser-like backhand, quick around the court, spectacular defensive skills, stubborn rally temperament, slightly vulnerable when pulled off the court, relatively better at returning than serving.

Jasmine Conway: World #1028, 17 years old, tall enough to win cheap points on serve, decent two-hander with the option of a well-controlled slice, could be rushed/generally more erratic on the forehand.

I was trying to come up with a gameplan/work out if Anna was following one. There seemed to be some intent to find the forehand on her own serve and to neutralise the serve with her return rather than all-out attack it. Anna certainly seemed to be coming out on top in the longer rallies, so it was best just to negate a serve + 1 from her opponent rather than take unnecessary risk with an aggressive return.

Other coherent thoughts crossed my mind as I caught glimpses of the other two matches on courts in the background.

Henri Squire, a tall German bloke, was bombing serves against Omni Kumar, a 20-year-old with one of the most unorthodox double-handed-to-single-handed backhands I’d ever seen.

Tara Moore was packing plenty of explosiveness from court-level, her one-hander a beautifully fluid stroke – it looked as though she was having a bit of a bad day, berating the chair umpire for failing the impractically assigned task of calling most of the lines from his perch.

I loved the intimacy of it all – it was so much easier to fully wrap my head around what was going on.

It was simultaneously bewildering that Anna and her opponent were left unrattled by the venue. The umpires screaming from other courts were frequently mistaken by me for the one officiating this match, line calls were definitely quite often incorrect, rogue balls from other courts would result in a let-call, the other players pumping themselves up with regular “Come on!”s…

I caught myself mid-marvel as I realised Anna had 15-40 5-6 on her opponent’s serve.

Two match points.

*****

In the blink of an eye, my feeble attempt at analysis, the notes on my phone – ALL OF IT – were completely forgotten.

Okay, second-serve… Double fault, double fault, double fault… Shit. Okay Anna, win this rally, win this rally, win this rally… shit, fuck. Okay, this one, this one, this one… Oh nice return. Oh nice backhand… Oh shit. You can get to that drop-shot Anna, come on, come on – FUCK. A fucking drop-shot? Who does this girl think she is?

Conway held serve. My brain revolved hapless thoughts round my head like a washing machine.

Win the next point… Okay’s let win the next point… Fuck – okay this point… Well done – now this point… Ah, shit.

Conway won the tiebreak – and I didn’t have a fucking scooby how she’d done it.

*****

I’d experienced moments like this at home. Andy is always my best example to draw on when talking about the raw enjoyment of a tennis match – a beastly serve here, a crunched backhand there and, quicker than Andy can say “Let’s go!”, you can find yourself lost in the match.

Not a problem. I often welcome it in fact – enjoy everything now and a grainy mental reel of the match should provide enough landmarks for me to quickly dissect a replay.

But here, in the heat of the match and without the option to pause, practically on the fucking court… Anna went a double break up and I really was gone, clapping loudly for every point won that wasn’t an egregious error by Conway whilst losing all feeling of what had actually gotten Anna ahead.

I started to refocus as things went awry – some long service games didn’t go Anna’s way prompting me to remember my (sort of) task for the day.

… Another backhand about one inch above the net?!… Conway’s not missing any of the shots she’s supposed to be missing… Another fucking break of serve? What is going on??? What the fucking fuck is going on?! WHY ISN’T SHE MISSING?!

A double break lead turned to 4-4. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what Anna could do differently. Conway had simply… raised her level. 

*****

Anna went on to lose the match 6-4 in the third.

I’d seen her pull a face like fizz missing off a drop-shot deep in the third but only once did she actually shout at herself.

When she lost the match, she remained stoic, head dipped in disappointment walking up to Conway but eventually raised to meet her gaze, a consummate professional even in defeat.

Meanwhile I was at the sidelines fucking apoplectic at Jasmine Conway.

What the fuck did she do? She didn’t deserve to win that match, Anna was FAR fucking better!

I had been nervy, ecstatic, anxious – now I was angry – and during all of it, I hadn’t been able to draw a single useful conclusion from the tail-end of the match. All I could think was “Jasmine Conway rAiSeD hEr LeVeL”.

To tour coaches across the world, I salute you. How you sit court-side and do anything but internally combust is beyond me. My first self-assigned rodeo was a stark realisation that trying to solve a tennis match with any emotional investment involved was an extremely tough exercise in focus…

… and, of course, to tour players across the world – to Anna – I double-salute you. I barely coped with the pressure of that match from the sidelines. It is absolutely astounding that these players can string together a coherent inkling of a tactical thought staring match-point in the face.

*****

At the end of the second-set, I noticed a couple of kids I’d coached that morning watching from the elevated pathway behind the courts. I stuck my tongue out at one of them, to which she replied in kind.

These kids didn’t have a solitary technical thought about this match. They were here to see the ball go BOOM off the strings and to feel the mid-match wins and losses of their preferred player.

From behind closed doors, I can remove myself from the feeling of a match. At the very least, I can keep my head above water. But there’s nothing like taking the plunge, of truly immersing yourself in the feeling of every point – of getting completely lost in the ups and downs of a fucking tennis match. Go try it sometime if you can, because the experience is vastly different from watching a match on TV.

*****

I waited for Anna outside to tell her thanks for playing a brilliant match. She thanked me for showing up before I could thank her. Her dad shook my hand. I really wanted to say I FEEL EXHAUSTED ANNA WHOAH BOY I CAN’T IMAGINE HOW YOU FEEL but I thanked her quietly, sheepishly waddled off and tried to process what had just happened.

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