Thursday, July 21, 2011

In Tennis, Saying Sorry Is Beautiful

Let-cord apologists are not stupid. They know that decorum is an essential part of tennis.

Whoosh! One of tennis's quirkiest traditions always seems to go right over the head of the casual observer. But for the tried-and-true tennis fan, the real intrigue lies in the subtlety. Winning and losing is too black and white for the fans who watch tennis the way a gallery-goer inspects a fine Impressionist-era painting, so when we see a player raise his racquet and nod timidly towards his foe after being aided by a let-cord, we know we're in the right museum -- the one where respect takes precedent over hot-dogging; the one where saying sorry isn't taboo.

It's a beautiful thing, and its beauty lies hidden, cleverly concealed in the context of the match and the refined traditions of the game. Like errant lines of color that cast shadows on an otherwise minimalist piece, the gestures of tennis players can also be inspected for more than form, more than technique, more than smashtastic winner ratios and first-serve percentages and speeds.

The merits of let-cord apologies have long been debated, and the tradition itself is somewhat paradoxical. On the surface it might seem inane, even robotic or cruel, but when you think about what the gesture is intended to mean -- and what it means when it is actuated properly, with full respect -- it is one of the things that makes tennis such a unique sport.

And, yes, it is most certainly an art.

Think about it: Can you ever imagine a baseball player apologizing for a broken-bat double that drives in a run? Or a football player who swipes a pass that had just bounced off his own helmet and takes it into the end-zone? Or a soccer player who has just taken advantage of an own goal to take a lead just before halftime?

Of course not. It's a cutthroat dog-eat-dog world that we play and watch our sports in, and the object of the game is to win, win, win, because it's all about me, me, me at the end of the day.


Wrong. At least if you're a tennis player it is. Because the game of tennis is a game played by well-mannered gentlemen and ladies, and, being well-mannered gentlemen and ladies, they follow a code of ethics that is different from the ones that govern all the other sports. While other professional athletes take what they can get and step on their opponent's jugulars once they've gotten it, the tennis player displays a rare and precious empathy for his or her opponents. When they feel pain their opponent too feels their pain, and when they've won a point with the assistance of a let-chord, they give them that classic gesture that says "sorry, dude, I got lucky there, and I know it."

To some players the gesture is a mere afterthought, a required necessity. The discerning fans always know who these players are, and we find ourselves wishing that these players understood the code like the true "artistes" of the gesture do.

To others, the opportunity to say they are sorry is a time to shine in an emotionally available sort of way. And these are the moments where the discerning fan is rewarded for being such a connoisseur of let-cord apologists. For when the let-cord offender gives that heartfelt look -- the one that says, "ah, dude, we're battling out here, but the heat of the moment will never be bigger than the respect I have for you" -- we are bearing witness to the art form at its finest.

Tennis is a game of respect. It may seem an anachronistic concept to some, given that we live in a self-centered egocentric world that revolves incessantly around the winner; but to the people who find ecstasy in the details, the art of let-cord apologies is the thing that will forever set tennis apart from the rest of the sports.


  1. what a great, great post. it captures a definite element of tennis that i love. well done. :)

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