Thursday, October 7, 2010

How much tennis do pros actually play?

Wimbledon Championships Day 04 2010 24/06/10 John Isner's historic match against Nicolas Mahut (FRA) as the longest match in history. 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 Photo Susan Mullane Fotosports International UK Only Photo via Newscom

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal caused a minor furor with their publication of some in-house research indicating that football players spent a mere 11 minutes playing actual football during a match. (I am of course referring to the American game, not soccer.) The folks at WSJ sat down with their stop-watches and calculators and figured out that a typical football game ran for approximately 185 minutes – or three-plus hours of television broadcasting. But if football players spent a mere 11 minutes on average of this time period actually engaged in play, where did the rest of this time go?

To no one’s surprise, commercials easily ate up one hour of the remaining 174 minutes. About seven percent of the time was spent ogling the cheerleaders. And the bulk of the remaining time was spent capturing shots of the players as they postured, huddled, or just milled around pointlessly. So players like Tom Brady end up securing multi-million dollar contracts for mere minutes of play per game. What a sweet racket.

At the time I thought of making a similar dissection of tennis. Back then, one of the longest matches was the almost five-plus Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. I’m sure you remember that match. The one when Andy Roddick’s serve was broken only once – in the 77th game of a 77-game match, and that turned out to be all she wrote. The one that Sampras turned up to watch and looked increasingly as if someone was shoving a hot potato up his ass. The one when Roddick tearfully apologized to Sampras for losing the match – as if keeping Sampras’ record intact was going to earn him some extra million corporate dollars or something. The one where Federer took Sampras’ record and pissed on it with flair. Yes I’m sure you remember now.

So I’m wondering at the time, how much of that more than say 4.5 hours did these two men actually spend hitting the ball. I bet you it was more than 11 minutes per set, much less 11 minutes for the entire match. It occurred to me then that pound for pound, tennis players put out a whole lot more effort to earn their millions than football players seem to do. 

Mind you, I would be the first to admit that football is a far more dangerous sport. And if I had a son, I would definitely have been more biased in favor of him playing such non-huddling sports as tennis or golf. But the amount of time that tennis players spend in activity – meaning actually playing tennis during a match – seems to far exceed the activity level of most other sports. In my opinion.

So I flirted with the idea of writing this article back in January. And then one thing led to another and it ended up on the pile of other ideas I have for other entries that still have not seen the light of day. And it may have remained that way had the WSJ not published yet another telling analysis of time spent playing another sport. This time they took on baseball.

And again using such fancy technology as stop-watches and calculators, they concluded that the average baseball player spends 14 minutes per game actually engaged in play. Some of the rest of the broadcast time was spent on replays and tuning into to the reactions of coaches. But the bulk of the remaining time – some 68.6%, was spent capturing the players as they simply stood around.

Which naturally brings me to the 11-hour match between Isner and Mahut this summer. Remember that match? I’d rather not. While everyone hailed it as the most exciting thing to happen in tennis since Serena wore the catsuit, I was busy griping and complaining about these two foolish men who actually let a match last that long. Whenever I think about that match I get angry all over again. I recently tried watching the Tennis Channel’s program on John Isner, and the minute they brought up that stupid match I switched the channel and started looking for something else to watch.

I find it shameful that John Isner’s entire tennis career risks being defined by a long drawn-out pointless embarrassing 11-hour match against the French qualifier, 28-year-old Nicolas Mahut ,who apart from once beating Nadal on grass in 2007, has accomplished next to nothing in his tennis career. At the time Isner lamented that “it stinks that someone had to lose”. I shouted to the TV, “No John, it stinks because it stinks”. Because really, who cared who lost that damn match. At the end of the day – or rather three – both men lost because neither had a leg to stand on when it was all over.

See, I’m getting so worked up that I’m already losing control of my main point. My main point is this. How much of those 11 hours did these two idiots actually spend with racket in hand hitting the tennis ball? Let’s see now. In tennis, players are allowed a two-minute break between odd-games as well as between sets. But the number of breaks depends very much on the score. Players are also expected to begin serve within 30 seconds after the end of the previous point. But some players routinely violate this while other players, like Kim Clijsters, play so speedily between and during points that their matches seem to fly by. Really I’m just going to have to guess because there’s no way I’m sitting down with a stop-watch and going through all 11 of those mind-numbing hours just to make my point.

So until the obsessives at WSJ decide to help me out by whipping out their stop-watches during next year Wimbledon, I’m going to go out on a limb and take a guess that Mahut and Isner probably spent anywhere between six to eight hours actually engaged in playing tennis. That’s a shitload of tennis. And to think that they’re both still making less money than Tom Brady who gets time to just stand around looking pretty.


Kim at TennisFixation said...

I'm with you on this. This reminds me of the debate I have with my husband re tennis and golf. I think singles tennis is a much harder game than golf and he, of course being a golfer, thinks the opposite. He says in golf you're always playing yourself. No matter who's out on the course you always have to strive to be the best. And I say - exactly! You add up the shots and maybe you win, maybe you lose. But you don't really play your game based on what everyone else is doing. You just play your best and hopefully you have less strokes than everyone else. In tennis, you're playing yourself AND the guy across the net. You have to play well AND you have to react to your opponent. You can play incredible tennis (Roddick losing to Federer) and still lose. I know I'm right on this!

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