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Wednesday
Jun302010

Broken Strings

       A year ago, a player from my tennis club came up to me, distressed. It was Saturday afternoon, which is league day for people who work, and she wanted to talk to me (resident pro and mental skills guy) as a tennis authority: had she handled herself correctly in her match? After a little bit of stumbling, her story came out: her opponent had arrived at the match with only one racket, and had broken a string early in the match. It fell on our player, let's call her Melanie, to provide a racket or have a "free" victory, but no opponent. Melanie let her borrow a racket and the visiting player went on the win the match by a single game (Our league has a time-limit for every match, and unfinished matches are decided by totaling the number of games each player has won.). Someone on Melanie's team had muttered that she shouldn't have loaned out her racket and just taken the win, and Melanie wasn't sure if she should have trusted her instinct to share.

       I thought is was awful that Melanie was made to feel bad for what she thought was an act of sportsmanship, but that doesn't necessarily answer the question of what was the right thing to do. For me, I see the need for balancing the interests of a few different groups: each player and Melanie's team. The team, as an entity, has needs. Providing for the exercising, challenging, improvement, and enjoyment it's players is the primary one. Secondarily, it must stay competitive in it's league or face relegation to a lower level. Each player similarly seeks varying degrees of challenge and fun, as well as a vague threat that performing well (often judged in terms of win/loss record) is necessary to maintaining one's spot on the team.

       In all but the cases where relegation or promotion is an immanency, I would argue that the win or loss itself is irrelevant. In recreational leagues, it can be particularly hard to find a comfortable level of competitiveness because almost everybody feels better after a win than a loss, but this example shows the extreme of what that thinking leads to: Melanie's teammate suggesting that it's better to have a win on paper than to have had the experience of playing the match.

       From my perspective, playing non-professional sports is all about the sublime experience of being fully engaged in a close match like this. Melanie and I talked it over. She works all week, and sneaks in a team practice and maybe another hit on some evening. Here was a match that she cared about, she got a ton of exercise, she played about as well as she could, she got to test herself with the outcome in doubt, and the match wasn't decided until the clock expired during the last game. As a club player, what more could you ask for on a Saturday afternoon? And she was supposed to walk away 10 minutes into the match to get a cheap win on a technicality? Bah! That's ridiculous.

       I also think that a very strong argument could be made that playing a close match is the most valuable thing a tennis player can experience, both in terms of enjoyment and potential growth. If Melanie's team makes the league playoffs, or has to play a match that determines whether they get relegated to a lower division, I believe they will be in a stronger position having had Melanie already play a close match like this one.

       
       There is a similar, but not identical, dilemma that is a more theoretical ethical test for the athlete, called the "Josie" problem. In this situation, you are entered in a squash tournament where you know that your only real competition will come from a  player named Josie. When you arrive for the tournament, it turns out that the airline lost Josie racket bag. You have enough rackets to make it through the tournament, and in fact, you use the same model racket. Should you lend Josie some equipment?
       This puzzle removes the team element, and the responsibility from the opponent, but raises the stakes for victory: maybe you'd win the whole tournament (and, I suppose improve your regional ranking)! Most people that I've talked to about this eventually agree that even though you're not obligated, creating the circumstances for the best possible competition is in your, and everyone else's, interests. How do you feel? Let me know.

--

   One last take is this: what should be the penalty for not bringing an extra racket? The incidence of string-breaking increases with the level of play, and correspondingly the number of rackets that people bring to a match increases. Would there ever be a point where I think that it's OK to say, "It's not my responsibility to equip my opponent?" Probably, but the stakes would have to be high enough that my opponent would almost certainly have extra coverage for any eventuality. Recently, it was announced that the US Open would have regional, more literally "open," qualifying. Anyone with $125 can sign up for a huge national tournament that eventually feeds into the main draw. Would it be worth advancing a round in this tournament in a cheap way? I think it would for some people, but one would have to think that the better player would stand a much better chance in the next round.

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