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Advantage of balance, on and off court

10 July 2015

THE only competitive game I have ever played well is tennis (well enough to play for the school and for the local tennis club). I once had a tennis coach who said I reminded him of Christine Truman, and I practised for hours on summer evenings, hitting a ball again and again against the garage door until I graduated to a splendid concrete wall with a "net" painted on.

I played as an introvert (I never liked doubles much), quietly sizing up the opposition across the net, spotting their weak points, and delighting to place shots out of their reach, while moving as little from the centre of the baseline as possible. Yes: I was a lazy but strategic player, easily outrun, but fierce when in command of the ball.

Tennis was also a form of social intercourse; good manners and sportsmanship were built in — at least in the friendly matches that I took part in around the clubs of north London.

This summer, recuperating from an operation, I have been able to watch Wimbledon properly for the first time in years. I have been struck by how the rather old-fashioned courtesies of the game have survived, in spite of the incredible pressures of competition, sponsorship, and money. There is still that comradely handshake at the end, and the courtesy extended to ball-boys and -girls, and to the umpires.

What is revealed on the court is not only strength and trained skill, but something of the players’ souls. Nowhere was this more true than in the match between Andreas Seppi and Andy Murray, when Seppi, falling behind badly, asked for a medical break for an injured calf muscle. A physio came on to the court and manipulated Seppi’s calf for several minutes, breaking the flow, while Murray visibly but silently fumed. He then lost six games in a row, before turning the tables by asking for a medical break himself, for attention to a painful shoulder. After that, he recovered and went on to win.

The judges must decide whether such bending of the rules is legitimate, but it seemed to me within the spirit of a game where character is tested to the limit and the mind is as important as the body. Tennis tolerates emotional, egoistical, difficult people, as well as modest and gracious individuals; but everyone has to keep within boundaries, which are British in origin, capable of revision, and courteous to a fault. There is an exquisite balance here between grace and law, which has a wider application than the tennis court.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Education Adviser for the Oxford diocese.

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