- Tennis and Philosophy: What the Racket Is All About
Tennis and Philosophy begins with the editor David Baggett explaining that he and his fellow philosophers “generally use tennis as a springboard to consider questions that matter” (p. 5). While a seemingly lofty aspiration, the articles do not betray his objective. Moreover, this collection is eminently accessible, ideal for both specialists and those with a limited knowledge of tennis and philosophy. Accordingly, sports historians would do well to include this volume in an undergraduate class on their specialty. Many articles make use of events and people from tennis’ past to ask questions that will no doubt prompt vigorous classroom discussions.
The volume’s varied examinations of sportsmanship are particularly valuable. Kevin Kinghorn investigates the ethics of complaining, drawing principally from his interview with Brad Gilbert, the legendary coach of players like Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. Thinking along with Gilbert, Kinghorn says that complaining is ultimately self-destructive since it signals a player’s lack of introspection and unwillingness to accept blame for athletic shortcomings. Similarly, David Ditmer’s ethical analysis of rage focuses, fittingly enough, on John McEnroe. Ditmer speculates that John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant would deem “Johnny Mac’s” infamous tantrums, which disrupted the flow of the game and may have given McEnroe an unfair advantage, immoral. This article finds a suitable contrast in Tommy Valentini’s discussion of tennis and virtue. He envisions a virtuous player who deemphasizes winning and places priority on “full effort, positive attitude, and the highest standard of sportsmanship” (p. 131). Similarly, Mark R. Huston contemplates the value of losing. “If a player loses but plays well given her abilities,” he resolves, “then that is a clear case of losing beautifully” (p. 216).
In his other article, Huston discusses beauty in a different context, wondering in a tongue-in-cheek manner why all tennis films are bad. The answer, he proposes, lies in uncommon complexity of tennis. Raging Bull produces believable sports scenes distinguished by remarkable “aesthetic heights” (p. 69). But Huston maintains that no actor could duplicate the athleticism of a great tennis player. Additionally, he cites David Foster Wallace, who contends that televised tennis cannot capture the speed, power, and grace of a live match. Other articles reference Wallace, whose poetic paean to Roger Federer appears in the volume’s opening pages. “Roger Federer,” Wallace extols, “is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws” (p. 13). Thus, the author compares watching Federer to a religious experience. The volume has no shortage of praise for the tennis great. David Baggett goes so far as to claim that Federer is (perhaps) the game’s greatest player. As any true philosopher would, Baggett defines with expert clarity his criteria for making this assertion, listing everything from mental toughness to matches won. He also humbly admits that the debate is not settled and that time might tell a different story. [End Page 310]
Curiously, Baggett did not include female players in his overview of tennis’ greatest players. This omission highlights the volume’s most notable shortcoming. While the index shows that Federer graces over sixty pages of the text, Venus Williams and Serena Williams combined appear on only twelve pages. To be sure, there are quality articles on women and gender. Mark W. Forman uses the 1993 stabbing of Monica Seles as a point of departure for critiquing fan fanaticism and defining “fair play.” Maureen Linker examines the social forces informing the 1973 “battle of the sexes” match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Helen Ditouras’ provocative article unpacks themes of race, gender, and sexuality as they relate to media portrayals of Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters. These articles are all worthwhile philosophical ventures, but none put an aesthetic lens on the play of women in the same manner done for Federer. This is unfortunate, since tennis has arguably produced some of the most charismatic and talented female athletes...