Poetic Excuses for Losing at Tennis

Horace Henry Cauty, "The Tennis Match"

Horace Henry Cauty, “The Tennis Match”

Sports Saturday

Thanks to the University of the South’s indoor tennis courts, I’ve been playing tennis all week with my friend Woody Register. On the first day everything in my game was a tick off, leading me to think of various literary quotations.

Of course, the fact that I was thinking of literary quotations rather than focusing on the ball was part of my problem. I believe that Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, says something about intellectuals not being capable of great tennis because thought gets in our way. To use his basic contrast, we are “cold” creatures who reflect whereas sports calls for “hot” contestants who act instinctively. To explain by means of another of his contrasts, books are cold, television is hot.

Years ago I read The Inner Game of Tennis, which offered Buddhist tips on how to get the mind out of the way. My mind never followed the program.

I’m thinking that journalist Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, wouldn’t entirely agree with McLuhan. For him, we need 10,000 hours of practice before the mind can step aside and allow instinct to take over. Only then do we have a chance of entering what players and sports analysts call “the zone.”

Anyway, I wasn’t in any zone. I would toss up my service and in the split second that I was thinking about it, I would hit the ball late and put the ball into the tape. Same with my ground strokes.

And then I would quote Hamlet, “The Hollow Men,” and Edgar Arlington Robinson’s Minniver Cheevy to myself.

Hamlet’s intervention of thought isn’t entirely bad since it keeps people from offing themselves. They contemplate the need, think of the possible consequences (“perchance to dream, aye there’s the rub”), and refrain:

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.

Or as T. S. Eliot would put it,

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

In Minniver Cheevy’s case, the shadow falls between dreams of wealth and fame and the actual action needed to bring them about:

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it. 

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Robert Frost considered the fourth “thought” in the penultimate stanza to be a touch of comic genius. For me, it captures that moment when my opponent has sent me a leisurely-paced forehand and I can choose to put it down the line or send it cross-court or drop it  short.

I think and think and think and think about it.

And put it into the net.

This entry was posted in Eliot (T.S.), Robinson (Edward Arlington), Shakespeare (William) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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