06 July, 2008

On Wimbledon

Today I found myself in the disconcerting position—disconcerting because, I think, historically unique—of being alone among my friends, with the exception of my wife, to take any interest in the sport. Normally, I'm the one who'd rather read a book than watch men in shorts. This will not surprise you. But the tennis, my god! Did you see it? They're saying it's the greatest tennis final ever. I haven't a clue about that, having watched comparatively little raquetry in my life. But there is no question it was a great match. I spent the last hour of it, with Nadal tossing away match-points like sweet-wrappers, in a state of increasing tension. Tennis is the ideal sport for the individualist: each match is like a scholastic disputatio, each drop and volley a stinging syllogism. You can see the whole of a match, weigh and measure every motion made. Give football, with its bluster of blues and reds, to those drunk on collective experience.

I was rooting for Federer; Lily, advocata diaboli, for 'The Spaniard', as the BBC commentators kept calling him. I was on the Swiss side for two reasons. The first, and more superficial, is that his game is so much the more beautiful. As Paul Weaver put it in the Guardian,
For the first two sets [which Nadal won] it rained on poets, and on aesthetes, stylists and all those with a keen sense of the refined.
Sure, Nadal had the power, accuracy and determination: but Federer was making his opponent do things I've never even seen. By the end of the fifth set, the dazzling Swiss sprezzatura had peeled off, finesse was out of the window, except of course for the continuing rattle of aces, and Federer, like Nadal, was human again. But my choice of side was founded on more than aesthetics. I wanted Federer to win because I need to believe that some things are fixed and permanent. I am uncomfortable with the Heraclitean flux of sporting rivalries. No, I want to witness a palace outlast its assailants, and I want to witness records broken, history. I want to be living in a historic age, an age of greatness, of six consecutive wins, not an age of decline, such as that proffered by all the front pages. Mine is a patriotism of time, not country. Nadal's victory was the announcement of inevitable decay, of death and rebirth, the hounds at the gate: all things must pass. What could be more humiliating?


John Cowan said...

Very well: if you wish to live in interesting times, by all means do so.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I too (not normally a tennis fan) was riveted by the match—I thought it was the best I'd seen, which is meaningless, but McEnroe said the same thing, and he's seen some tennis—and it's nice to see it commemorated with something better than the staple phrases of the daily hackery.


Yann said...

Fear not, you were not alone, I too was watching from afar. I wasn't too concerned who won either as long as the match continued, although I did have a slight preference for Rog on the solid sporting ground that he looks like my brother from certain angles. And I find Popeye's game a little one dimensional. Grunt. Smack. Vamos! Grunt. Smack. Etc. DId you know that 'Love' is a bastardization the french 'l'oeuf' because an egg looks like a zero. I like the comparison with debate, although I've also found tennis to be the equivalent of one of those aristocratic shoot ups at ten paces thingys. They even have obsequious little pubescent attendants, who've had to learn some strange hand waving code. Having said that, if Rafa were an intellectual he'd almost certainly be a Marxist. Rog on the other hand seems to personify the British take on the Romantic ideal; an effete prettyboy and athletic risk taker. Add tousled hair and a hint of aristocratic arrogance and you're there. All he needs to do is die in an interesting way and his legend will be complete (One of Rafa's cannonballs inflicting the fatal blow to his ever vulnerable, beetling left eybrow, perhaps?)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Hi Yann, thanks for stopping by. I knew you would be watching! I'm afraid I will have to dispel the 'love' myth: like most 'did you know' etymologies, it isn't true. Tennis 'love' comes not from l'oeuf but from for love, ie. without stakes, for nothing but pleasure.

"Q" the Enchanter said...

Same for me and the Enchantress -- I was for Federer, she for Nadal. (I'm pretty sure it's cause Nadal's younger and cuter.)

I'm skeptical about the Ephesean rationale though -- the match was far more fluxional than the rivalry has been.

Anyway, I too was a bit disconcerted by just how...invested I was in this match. Why the hell should I care about two guys' smacking a ball back and forth between them? But there I was, riveted, heart sometimes pounding probably harder than either of the players'. It is absurd.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Absurd, indeed. Well at least we can go back to reasonableness for another year now.

Yann said...

You sure about that? There seems to be some confusion about where 'love' (and the rest of the tennis scoring system) comes from. I emailed a tennis nut friend (Dan - you know him - we went to a faux pornostar themed party with him. He wore a rather fetching fake mustache). He directed me to this website as being fairly representative of the range of opinions:


(of course he might have simply googled this link; I suspect that this is the case, but...)

Since nobody seems to know, I'm sticking with my l'oeuf story....

Conrad H. Roth said...

Never ask an enthusiast of a subject about the origins of its terms! That is, if you want something plausible as opposed to creative. (I like both, it must be admitted.) The egg-theory, if you think about it, is completely implausible. I can't come up with any other instances of an egg symbolising zero, nor does it particularly look like zero. The explanation has all the hallmarks of a folk-etymology: one word being mistaken for another in another language, that has only the most indirect of associations.

The OED is pretty decided on the matter. Interestingly, one of its earliest quotations, from 1780, is "We are not told how, or by what means Six love comes to mean Six to nothing." However, the OED does list a couple of printed sources for alternative explanations. I'll look them up at the library tomorrow.

Sorry to rain on your parade!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yann, some other etymologies.

From T. Row in Gentleman's Magazine, 1780: "the expression may have come to us either from Scotland or Holland. Luff in old Scotch is the hand; so that Six luff will mean more than the adversary, when he has nothing upon his score. So again, Loof in Dutch, whence we have our word Loof, and to loof is the weather-gage and in this case Six loof will imply six upon the weather-gage, or to advantage, as really it is, when the antagonist is nothing."

From A. Smyth-Palmer's Folk-Etymology, 1882: "Perhaps the same word as Icel. lyf, denoting (1) a herb or simple, (2) anything small or worthless. . . So lyf seems to have been used in old English for a whit or small particle. . . It is more likely, however, that love is here the ordinary antithesis to money, as in the phrases 'to play for love' [of the game']."

Meanwhile, from Bengt Oreström, 'A Love Affair', in Instead of Flowers, 1989:

"It has been claimed that this word is an anglicized form of the French 'l'oeuf' meaning 'egg'. This is an attractive theory since the egg and the figure for zero have the same oval shape. Moreover, there is a French expression 'get the egg'. . . meaning 'get nothing' or 'draw a blank'.

Why egg anyway? Is there some logical explanation behind ths, an explanation which has its origin in something fairly concrete? It is my belief that there is. Let us consider how the players might have signalled the score to each other, for some systematic way of doing this must certainly have existed. What could be a more natural assumption than that this was done using the hands. As any child will know, the fingers are very well suited for indicating numbers and for forming a zero-like sign."

"It is not completely certain that the term 'love' derives from French. There is a vernacular English noun 'love', meaning 'palm / flat of the hand', recorded in the Middle Ages and accounted for in the OED. . . Is it possible to connect this love with the tennis term? I think so, if we assume that the palm was raised to indicate zero. As for shape, the open hand has clear similarities with the figure for zero, especially when it is raised and seen at a distance, from the other side of the net, for instance. I propose that this is the link between love and 'zero'."