For sports fans, this is a special time of year, our magic hour. Baseball’s pennant and wild-card races are heating up. The NFL and college football seasons are kicking off. Basketball and hockey are just over the horizon.
Almost as much fun as watching sports is arguing about them. In that amicably contentious spirit, here’s a question: What sport, at its elite level, offers the most demanding all-around test for an athlete?
In addition to the “majors,” a host of other sports — boxing, gymnastics, or track and field’s decathlon, to name a few — can all lay claim to aspects of athletic excellence and rigor. But for my money, no sport can be considered among the most demanding unless it involves a moving object like a puck, shuttlecock, or headless goat (see the Afghan sport of buzkashi) that an opponent can also possess, vie for, or direct. That’s because such sports not only require exceptional hand-eye coordination (or foot-eye, in soccer) but also because a player must factor in the speed and movement of the ball — or object — while being pressured by an opponent, a unique kind of duress that elevates sports that have it above those that don’t.
A moving ball is central to another premier event at this time of year, in a sport often overshadowed by the major professional leagues: the U.S. Open tennis tournament, now underway in New York. To my mind, the excellence of Messrs. Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Nadal, and a few others — when added to the already daunting structure of the game — makes the elite level of men’s singles tennis the most demanding competition in the world. Of all sports, it requires the greatest variety of athletic skills, levels of physical fitness, and reserves of mental stamina. Its top players meet a broad array of performance standards that in toto are seldom if ever required of other athletes — supremely gifted though they may be — in other sports.
Let’s look at the elements of “most demanding.”
Ted Williams once said the most difficult thing in sports is hitting a baseball. Tennis players wield racquets, not bats, but they must return 120 mph serves and hit hundreds of fastballs, change-ups, and slices for hours while constantly in motion, not dug in and awaiting a pitch delivered to their strike zone. Advantage: tennis.
Another requirement of any fully rounded sport should be physical fitness. While most sports require a high level of fitness, unlike tennis they also offer rest during half-times, intermissions, and substitutions. Furthermore, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, most sports feature lots of standing around: Actual on-field action amounts to only 18 minutes per contest in baseball and 11 minutes in football.
By contrast, matches in men’s singles tennis may last three or four hours, and are without the prolonged respites of other sports. Soccer players may cover several miles or more during a game, but much of that is coasting while not directly involved in the action — and then there’s rest at half-time. Tennis players cover as much as two miles during a single match, all quick reactions and directional shifts, while hitting hundreds of shots, each of which requires total concentration or else the point can easily be lost. Since a handful of points won or lost can be the difference between victory and defeat, and since there are no teammates to make up for one’s lapses, the mental demands of tennis are unrelenting.
It’s true that tennis players don’t have to absorb the body blows present in some other sports. (But remember that with 11 minutes of actual football action halved by offensive and defensive platooning, a player is exposed to only a few minutes of contact per game.) To be persuaded of the pounding and exhaustion incurred during a lengthy, top-flight tennis match, look no further than Andre Agassi’s graphic testimony in his memoir “Open.”
After winning their classic 5-set final at the 2006 U.S. Open, the veteran Agassi finds himself and his youthful challenger, Marco Baghdatis, alone in the dressing room while their trainers are momentarily absent. Lying on adjoining training tables, both men are exhausted and in agony, Agassi from a congenital back condition and Baghdatis from cramping all over his body. As Baghdatis moans in pain, Agassi writes,
“I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, we did that. I reach out, take his hand, and we remain that way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with scenes of our savage battle.”
In my book, no sport equals elite tennis for the combination of strength, coordination, fitness, agility, and mental toughness it requires. Ice hockey, with its speed, physicality, fitness, and hand-eye demands, finishes a close second. But at the top of the heap, it’s the game that outgrew the country club, with guys in short pants and love on its scoreboard, that breeds the sports world’s most complete athletes.