From the Agora to Arthur Ashe: The Virtue Ethics of Tennis

My first interaction with tennis was as an awkward six year old. I would sit patiently on the side of the court, waiting for my turn to demonstrate a frightening lack of hand-eye coordination in front of an audience of other children (and of course, the instructor who had given up on my prospects sometime between the second and third lesson). I would compensate for my striking lack of physical ability by focusing on academic interests, which as a small child meant mostly overthinking everything.

This opposition to interest in physical activity, however, came to an impasse when I rediscovered tennis. It was during Euro 2020, when the entire country was buzzing about England’s potential to bring it home for the first time since 1966. I had grown bored of the incessant replays of the match against Ukraine, when my attention turned to another screen: a young girl with a high black ponytail was battling it out against a brunette with hair perfectly arranged into a braid tucked behind a white visor.

Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon 2021

The green courts of Wimbledon surprised me--I’d never quite made the realisation that along with clay and hardcourt, grass was a surface one could theoretically play tennis on. The rallies, between who I later learned were Tomlijanovic and Raducanu, had transfixed me to the point that I ran home (my speed due to as much a torrential rainstorm outside as my excitement) to finish the match. I clutched the sheets on my bed, the anticipation absolutely killing me.

This excitement was not something I (until this point) had ever associated with sports. I never “got” why people cared so much about the long trip to the touchdown line in American Football or the hurried rush back and forth on the pitch of Association Football. The rapidfire rallies between Tomlijanovic and Raducanu were an entirely different game to the sunburnt days I had loitered around the overgrown hard courts present in parks around my cities. I was absolutely transfixed.

As a chronic overthinker, I have repeatedly interrogated why that match was all it took for me to understand the appeal of competitive sports. Why do I feel compelled to check tennis scores when I’m out at a club, or to watch a fifteen minute jump backhand compilation when I should be getting ready for bed? I believe that I’m drawn to the narratives and personalities presented--there is a dramatic streak to be had. There is the appeal of watching the very best of the best in the world master an intricate skill. On top of this, their abilities are compared in a very clear way every week of the year. The narrative there condenses in my mind into something spectacularly Greek, in the ancient sense. I feel like I have a better grasp on what Aristotle argues virtue and craft should look like when I’m watching tennis than I do when I’m struggling to cobble together an essay for a module in the hopes I can one day contribute my own self to the craft of political thought.

I posit that tennis is an inherently Aristotelian endeavor. This is a tough pill to swallow for someone who has been described as a “joyless nerd”. But, when the shoe appears to fit, I feel obligated to at least examine the situation. Much like overthinking the constituent parts of a moment of great happiness will kill the joy of it, I worry over analyzing something with such a purely physical purpose may be polluting something of joy with the contaminant of political and philosophical overanalysis. However, this is a risk I am willing to take to get at why someone like me, the very antithesis of a “sports person” would be so drawn to tennis.

The take that “something popular might actually be redeemable” is a pretty stale one, retreaded over and over on reddit threads about the implications of why pop music is actually high culture. I hope, however, that by explaining the political philosophy I see inherent in the game, that I can begin to articulate in my own clunky way why I am so irrationally obsessed with a sport that I am absolutely incapable of playing.

In order to examine what I find so captivating about tennis, it’s necessary to examine what exactly constitutes being a “fan” of a sport. While it is entirely possible to watch a match with a complete lack of awareness of who is playing, the most entertaining matches are when you have a dog in the fight. Going into a match blind is like overhearing a couple fighting in public--sure, you get the gist of the back and forth (and it might be somewhat entertaining), but you miss the entire context of that matchup.

Tennis's "Big Three" left to right: Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic

Absorbing the conflict and endless comparison between players is a staple of being a fan. If you are in a circle that talks about tennis long enough, eventually you will encounter the “GOAT debate.” That is to say, a debate about who is the “greatest of all time,” usually a clash between fans of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. For example, a Federer fan will make a vaguely outlandish statement followed by a Djokovic fan arguing for the statistical supremacy of their preferred player. Statistics like most weeks at the top of the rankings or most slams won become of vital importance, but others (like most carpet titles) are cherry picked as well.

That being said, how do sports fans decide who to support? Why do people get so sucked into this statistical frenzy? While fans do justify their choice with statistics, this often feels retroactive. This means people don’t actually emotionally connect with Federer because he has the most video game depictions, but rather these “facts” are thrown in to make an emotional preference seem rational. This is taken to such an extreme that I have seen a Djokovic fan try to quantify attractiveness in order to refute a Federer fan’s assertion.

This brings up a central question: where do these preferences develop, and what is the best ethical framework to describe them? I assert that an Aristotelian framework of identity formation fits the best--we support who we do because it feeds into our identity and presents value to our lives. However, in order to examine this framework, I will first outline why I believe deontological and consequentialist approaches to sports fandom fail.

Tennis is inherently about outcomes: who serves, who wins, who loses. Therefore, it would be logical to try and evaluate why we support who we do based on outcome or on the satisfaction of our preferences. I am therefore invested in tennis because it increases my utility. I have formed my preference for supporting Shapovalov or Medvedev because it is something that makes me happy to do.

However, this feels a bit backward to me. Indeed, looking purely at the hedonic calculus, the pain of my favourite losing or the money I’ve parted with to go watch live matches in comparison to the pleasure I’ve gained is not as good of a deal as other potential hobbies. For example, I could take up bird watching at much less personal expense, and yet I don’t, because our preferences are not formed because they will bring us utility--instead utility is derived from fulfilling those preferences (Papineau, 2017). Therefore, preference fulfillment might explain why I might choose to watch a match at the expense of going out, but it does nothing to explain where this preference comes from in the first place.

Given preference satisfaction is inadequate to describe why I’ve memorised so many facts about random tennis players, investigating the potential of a deontological explanation for tennis fandom would be logical. When looking at why we have a preference for acting in favor of one person over another, the deontological approach is tempting. For example, I would feel an obligation to act on behalf of my hypothetical child more so than someone else’s kid, not because it would lead to better overall welfare, but because I feel an obligation to do so (Papineau, 2017). We therefore maintain these preferential relationships, acting on behalf of those we care about because we feel we owe something to each other.

However, even the most ardent Djokovic supporter would be hard-pressed to explain their support of their favorite player as a “duty” or “obligation.” The feeling of support I feel for a player is not because I am compelled to--there’s another source of that feeling of goodwill.

I posit this is due to the role that being a fan plays in identity. I appreciate and value different things than you do--I like making bad music video edits and playing animal crossing and reading chick lit not because I think there is a duty or obligation to like them, but because I find my own personal enjoyment fulfilling. I have taken these interests on as my own personal life projects; they add a little piece to my identity and reinforce my self-conception.

Aristotle argues that we give meaning to our life by adopting projects. To put it into his terms, we adopt a project or craft (called a techne) which we pursue through practice, giving our life meaning (MacIntyre, 1999). In order to actually invest myself emotionally in the success of a player, I have to add that commitment to the others that define me. So just as writing unnecessary think pieces adds to my identity, so does tuning into the US Open at 2am.

I support certain players because they add a valuable component to my self-conception. Sure, my attachment to who I choose to support is often arbitrary. However, these elements and practices of identification enrich my life nonetheless. This was the element of sports fandom I had been misunderstanding my entire life.

At least part of the reason I enjoy tennis is that it adds something positive to my life and my identity. To follow and care about the outcome of certain matches gives me something to look forward to, and gives me another element to add to my overarching identity (Papineau, 2017). Yes, people support a team because it makes them happy. But it’s on this deeper level of identification, of having something to look forward to. When my favourites do well--for example, when Daniil Medvedev won the US Open--my elation makes me glad that I am a fan of the sport.

Tennis has an additional draw of being more clear and definable than many other elements of everyday life. We are able to watch people commit feats of greatness which are quantifiably known. I think this is why tennis fanatics are obsessed with their favorites “making history”--even if this “history” is inevitably going to be only a couple of questions in a pub quiz 30 years down the line.

Aristotle argues that everything has a telos--a writer’s to write, a blacksmith’s to forge, and a tennis player’s to play tennis. Our techne, or craft, provides us knowledge within a specific area. Through praxis, or principled action and practice, we are able to produce our own independent reasoning about our craft and therefore become independent reasoners, which is the ultimate goal for both human intellectual development and happiness.

Unfortunately, it becomes confusing to decipher what your “ultimate purpose” is when you live in a world where most people dedicate their lives to the rather mundane arts of “mid-level marketing executive” or “retail assistant.” Many of us will face the confusing reality of life that there may not be a single ultimate purpose, or that this purpose may be impossible to seek out due to life circumstances beyond our control.

Naomi Osaka, winner of the 2021 Australian Open

The history made by our favorite players is, in contrast, extremely concrete. The player’s purpose is obvious: win at tennis. So when that feat is accomplished, it’s concrete and awe inspiring and obvious and uncomplicated. When a player tells you in her post-match interview that all it takes to follow your passion to the very end is to believe in yourself, it’s a break from the usual life confusion us mere mortals face.

The teleology of tennis goes beyond its ability to quantify accomplishment. Indeed, the process of developing any skill, let alone to the best of your abilities, requires practice. And to Aristotle, ethical living involves adopting this day-to-day practice in order to achieve our telos. That is to say, it is in the day to day practice of a craft that we are able to reach fulfilment, rather than isolated grand acts.

As a child, practice is a casual abstraction. The idea of homework (which is really supposed to be practice from the day’s lesson) is one met with sneering disgust. It feels like extra work, like extra steps to doing what you really want to be doing is (in my case) reading or writing or otherwise terrorising your classmates with pseudo-philosophical bad takes.

What I never understood from the lectures of well meaning adults was that practice, when it’s for something that you really want to do, is the essence of whatever telos you are trying to achieve. To become a great tennis player it is not a matter of simply showing up on the day of Wimbledon and hitting everything correctly. It is the decades of practice behind it, years of repetitive serving motions arcing the sky and forehands and backhands until they are motions which are as much your nature as the footwork involved to get to the ball. The craft is the practice.

To quote Chopin, “simplicity is the highest goal, achievable when you have overcome all difficulties.” When you have hit an infinite number of rallies, written and read thousands of words on a topic, played millions of notes, what remains in the end is the simplest thread with which one can tie only the most distilled and important elements of “greatness” down into. In a sense, the very practice of a techne requires this march from abstraction to simplicity.

In the same way that virtuoso violinists practice since early childhood to perfect a craft that very few can truly be the “best” at, so did the entirety of the ATP tour. In a sense, reaching one’s telos regardless of craft is a path through the static into something more articulately great. To me, this teleology presents some of the biggest meanings able to be derived from tennis. While I am obviously never going to compete at Wimbledon, I can appreciate the necessity of hard work at a purpose greater than just zero-sum goals.

I am therefore additionally endeared to tennis because I can appreciate the way in which every day practice contributes to a greater goal. For me, that practice is academic research, but the philosophical principles remain the same. In that sense, the teleology of tennis enables a level of appreciation beyond just the banal act of staring at a screen.

I admit, however, that beyond the general pretensions of being a “gentleman’s sport,” another appeal of tennis to me has to do with the way the sport reflects some of the ironies of the human condition. I have no idea what it is like to be a multimillionaire, but I know deeply how it feels to have to deal with unpleasant people or to have a day so bad it feels like I’m defeating myself.

Daniil Medvedev, in a moment of obvious humanity, frustrated at running into a camera at Cincinnati 2021

Alasdair MacIntyre, a neo-Aristotelian theorist, describes the necessity of acknowledging our own dependence and weakness in order to reach our own fulfilment. We are independent rational reasoners because we are at times weak and dependent, not in spite of this face (MacIntyre, 1999). Some of the most humanising moments of tennis are those in which a player’s composure breaks, and things descend into chaos.

The place where the mask of grandeur slips and my common humanity with a player is the most apparent is in the drama. Tennis drama has an extra dimension of being focused on the individual--team sports might have drama but it’s not as personalised. When you know of the decade of rivalry that has culminated in the match you are watching, things become far more entertaining. It’s not just a couple of guys running around on a court, but now it’s the two guys who nearly got in a physical altercation over a few muttered words. In a way, tennis has a similar appeal as reality TV: who you support is just as important as what is actually happening on court.

Some of my favourite incidents could come straight out of the Real Housewives franchise. An example of this is a Masters match in Montreal from 2015:

“Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that, mate.” Thus spoke the Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios to his opponent Stan Wawrinka… Kyrgios was referring to his David Cup teammate Thanasi Kokkinakis, who had partnered with Wawrinka’s girlfriend in the mixed doubles at the Australian open the year before (Papineau 2017).

Another instance is the notorious “bullshit Russian” drama, which has been widely memed by the online tennis fandom to the extent that there exist multiple song “remixes” of the audio of the incident. It was the beginning of a long-running rivalry between now-US Open champion Daniil Medvedev and now #4 ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, taking place in Miami in 2018:

The rivalry between Tsistsipas and Daniil Medvedev, which is the closest thing we have to a blood feud in men's tennis, started in earnest the first time they faced each other on the ATP Tour. After Tsitsipas shakes Medvedev's hand, he calls him a "bullshit Russian." Medvedev flipped out, hilariously telling him that "you better shut your **** up," followed by yelling about a medical timeout he didn't like and Tsitsipas failing to apologize after a let. Medvedev kind of owned him, and under a barrage of threats and rage, Tsitsipas left the court while the chair umpire tried to cool the Russian down. "He's a small kid who doesn't know how to fight," Medvedev railed (Ryan 2021).

Both of these instances indicate something deeper about both the absurdity of the human condition in conjunction with the arenas in which we humans seek our own immortality. In the process of trying to accomplish physical feats which are frankly astonishing, players often inadvertently reveal extremely mundane and human moments.

Beyond the drama, the persona players adopt toward their fans are equally amusing. Tsitsipas attempts to curate a pseudo-philosophical image, gently reminding his followers via twitter of (often stolen) pearls of wisdom like “Brag about your library of books, not your house or car.” Embodying the organisational skills of a confused first year at uni for the first time, Andy Murray had to take to instagram to try and find his lost wedding ring.

Shapovalov rapping after victory at Indian Wells 2019

Canadian player Denis Shapovalov has continually tried to impose what can be very generously termed a “rap career” onto his fanbase despite having been repeatedly documented failing to open a banana on live television. To quote a top comment on one of his videos, “This is a good reminder that despite his talent and athleticism, he's still a 19 year old white boy.” And to me, this is the essence of tennis. For all of the achievements we may make in our life, for all of our vaulting ambition, we still embody and inhabit a uniquely absurd human condition.

This is the heart of MacIntyre’s argument for a community-based Aristotelian ethics: while reaching the point of independent practical reasoner is overall the ultimate goal of what it means to be “human,” we also have intrinsic weaknesses, moments when the facade of “greatness” might drop (MacIntyre, 1999). However, these moments of humanity are something that should be embraced, adding additional meaning and connection into our lives. It is only by embracing the inherent weakness in what it means to be human that we are able to become independent practical reasoners.

For every Federer--someone so aware of their station and image that every moment feels vaguely curated like a live action Rolex advertisement--there are five Medvedevs. As much as tennis wants to portray itself as a luxury product to be enjoyed by the refined, this marketing betrays the most enjoyable part of being a fan. It is not the dizzying heights players can reach and accomplish. While these moments of fleeting immortality are obviously amazing to behold, the lengths it takes to reach this Aristotelian sort of excellence obscures how frustrating and hilarious and tragic being a person is, multimillionaire tennis star or not.

To conclude, tennis has a specific appeal to me because it adds to my identity. It gives me something positive to look forward to beyond the next deadline. As someone who is obsessed with Aristotelian teleology, it also gives me one of the clearest and most definable instances of “greatness” in this sense that exists. However, the place where the sport really shines is where these moments of greatness slip and we are left with the humble realisation that we are all people, just like everyone else.

Works Cited

MacIntyre, A. (1999). Dependent Rational Animals. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press

Papineau, D. (2017). Knowing the Score. London: Constable.

Ryan, S. (2021). Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev are meeting in the Aussie semis, and

boy do they hate each other. Golf Digest. Online.