Wednesday, August 18, 2010

String Theory

This article on tennis by David Foster Wallace has been making the blog rounds lately.  It's fascinating. You should read it.  It talks about the vast, profound difference between the top players in the world and the runner-ups.  Once you get in the stratified air, it's amazing what the best of the best can do. It's not just work, practice and their 10000 hours.  It's something else.  Something superhuman.

Except for the serve, power in tennis is not a matter of strength but of timing. This is one reason why so few top tennis players look muscular. Any normal adult male can hit a tennis ball with a pro pace; the trick is being able to hit the ball both hard and accurately. If you can get your body in just the right position and time your stroke so you hit the ball in just the right spot -- waist-level, just slightly out in front of you, with your own weight moving from your back leg to your front leg as you make contact -- you can both cream the ball and direct it. Since “…just the right…” is a matter of millimeters and microseconds, a certain kind of vision is crucial. Agassi’s vision is literally one in a billion, and it allows him to hit his ground strokes as hard as he can just about every time. Joyce, whose hand-eye coordination is superlative, in the top 1 percent of all athletes everywhere (he’s been exhaustively tested), still has to take some incremental bit of steam off most of his ground strokes if he wants to direct them.
I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is and also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that weird mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires smarts. Just one single shot in one exchange in one point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical variables. Given a net that’s three feet high (at the center) and two players in (unrealistically) fixed positions, the efficacy of one single shot is determined by its angle, depth, pace, and spin. And each of these determinants is itself determined by still other variables -- i.e., a shot’s depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball’s height over the net itself determined by the player’s body position, grip on the racket, height of backswing and angle of racket face, as well as the 3-D coordinates through which the racket face moves during that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings. The tree of variables and determinants branches out and out, on and on, and then on much further when the opponent’s own position and predilections and the ballistic features of the ball he’s sent you to hit are factored in. No silicon-based RAM yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange; smoke would come out of the mainframe. The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then it can really be done only unconsciously, i.e., by fusing talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought. In other words, serious tennis is a kind of art.
If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably have some idea how hard a game is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all.
Read the whole thing here.


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