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How Tennis Can Make You a Better Man

Test Yourself Without Getting Punched in the Face

Are you looking for a sport to introduce to a son, grandson, or nephew? Or are you in need of a new athletic pursuit for yourself? Allow me to recommend tennis.

I’m no expert. I took up tennis three years ago, in my late 40s, because my children were doing it and so I was hanging around courts a lot anyway. I’m a slow learner. I’ve finally reached a level of consistent mediocrity that allows to me to get through actual match play without unduly embarrassing myself, while enjoying the occasional moment of triumph.

But it is because I’ve had to grind so hard for what meagre ability I possess that I’m qualified to say this: tennis is the ideal sport. Especially for young men. Power and stamina are crucial, and yet far from sufficient. A beginner in top condition can be easily dispatched by experienced players of all shapes and ages (I’ve been soundly thrashed by a 10-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman). This is humbling.

In tennis, experience and skill trump strength for far longer than in many sports. Mainly this is because trying to muscle your way through a shot will cause you to lose the point. Your taut, young legs may get you to the ball, but its all for naught if you panic and hit it out of play. To succeed in tennis, a man must submit his brute strength to the authority of technique.

The same goes for mental toughness. No matter what level you’re on, things get real, psychologically-speaking, the moment you start playing for points. You’ll make mistakes. Your opponent will capitalize on them. Channelling your inevitable anxiety and frustration into victory is not always so straightforward. Fights don’t break out in tennis, and the risk of concussion is vanishingly small. But the tennis court can be just as forbidding an arena as the MMA octagon. There is nowhere to hide.

All this from a sport equally at home in posh country clubs and asphalt playgrounds. A sport all ages can enjoy. A sport, as the cliche goes, “for life” — and in more ways than one.


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A tennis pro once told me that the tennis serve is one of the hardest skills in sports to teach. As someone who has double faulted a fair amount of times, I believe her.

Not only does serving require complicated physical coordination, it can also be quite nerve-wracking: this is the one moment in the game when success or failure is completely up to you. The mental pressure serving creates makes it an ideal test case for the performance-enhancing skill known as visualization. In this short video, performance coach Sam Martin offers an introduction to the widely-used technique, and explains how it can improve results in any number of endeavors.


The pursuit of success, while laudable, can never satisfy man’s fundamental longing. Poor David Foster Wallace knew this. Even at the enviable heights of his career as a writer, he felt an emptiness that he sought to fill, twice, by beginning the process of converting to Catholicism. He was never able to follow through.

Wallace was also an accomplished junior tennis player, and the game featured prominently in his moving epic of addiction and spiritual desolation, Infinite Jest. He also applied his lacerating perceptiveness and impressive verbal dexterity to much non-fiction about the sport he loved, the best of which is featured in the essential posthumous collection String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis.


Wallace’s most famous piece on tennis is arguably his 2006 profile “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” In it Wallace employs his inimitable talent to express, with fascinating specificity, just what made the then 25-year-old Federer so dominant.

Wallace understandably focuses on Federer the player, but he also touches upon Federer the man, noting his “unusually steady and mature commitment to the girlfriend who travels with him (which on the men’s tour is rare) and handles his affairs (which on the men’s tour is unheard of), his old-school stoicism and mental toughness and good sportsmanship and evident overall decency and thoughtfulness and charitable largess.”

While Foster caught Federer at his peak, his career has continued to flourish in the seventeen years since that article appeared. So has his family: the girlfriend Foster mentions, Mirka Vavrincová, became Federer’s wife and the mother of his four children, all baptized in the Catholic faith. When Federer retired last year, he had spent almost two decades at the top of his sport, handling the pressure and attention with dignity and grace. We often speak of professional athletes as role models; Roger Federer has proven to be the rare star actually up to the task.