Of Spaces and Objects

Anyone who watched Hsieh Su-Wei playing in the Autralian Open Tennis Championships at the beginning of the year shouldn’t find it in the least surprising that she knocked out the world number one Simona Halep at the Wimbledon championships.

What distinguishes her play from virtually any other tennis player on the circuit is that her tennis is not based on brute force but on intelligence.

She hits the ball where the other player isn’t.

To understand the importance of this, it is perhaps interesting to reflect a little on the way we perceive things.

Way back when we were hunter gatherers, I imagine that our main visual concern was objects, and in particular objects that moved. A space would not have been threatening. A moving animal might well have been. Or a source of food. Hence our vision historically more attuned to moving objects than still ones and our lack of concern over spaces.

Have you ever been behind a driver on the road who brakes every time there is a vehicle coming in the opposite direction ? This is particularly flagrant with a large vehicle like a lorry or a bus. The driver in this case is concentrating on the object rather than the space available, which is usually more than sufficient. If the driver was concentrating on the space on the road ahead, he would not even be braking.

The same thing happens when a vehicle slows down to turn right (left if you are in the UK). 99% of the time, the car behind will slow right down as well. The left side of the road may be completely clear and overtaking the car no problem at all, but the car stays behind the car turning off until the road is completely clear. No end of time is wasted because of this. Again, the driver behind is concentrating on the object and not the space available.

Now, I’m not an expert in tennis. But in the last couple of years, I have watched quite a lot of highlights of matches on YouTube. I don’t have a TV and life is too short to sit through two and three hour matches most of the time anyway.

But through watching these highlights, one thing becomes clear.

The person who usually wins the point is the one who gets the opponent to run. And this involves hitting the ball where the other person isn’t.

Which brings us back to Hsieh Su-Wei.

If I was coaching a female tennis player, I would look very closely at those matches in the Australian Open. As things stand, there are far too many women trying to play tennis like men. There’s a lot of bashing away from the baseline, hitting directly to the opponent, with no real strategy at work at all. It may have something to do with the fact that the majority of tennis coaches for women seem to be men. I don’t know.

But from my point of view, any repetitive rally back and forth hitting the ball as hard as possible to the other player is a pure waste of energy on the part of both players. Sure, one or other of the players will eventually make a mistake, but it’s a very energy inefficient way of winning a point. The error rate is usually too low for this to be a viable « strategy. » They are professional players, after all.

Hsieh Su-Wei doesn’t play tennis like a man. She is not a power player. She uses her intelligence, varies her shots and exploits spaces. Watching her play is a pure delight. She usually breaks a baseline power rally very quickly, after a couple of shots.

Some players have immense presence on court. Serena Williams, for example.

Remember that driver who kept braking every time he saw a truck coming the other way.

I see her opponents behaving in exactly the same way. It’s as if all they see is the tennis player – their respect or awe prevents them from seeing and exploiting the spaces.

Serena Williams is a very fit player indeed. But she isn’t the best mover about the court. And the times when people beat her are the times when they really get her to run about.

And it’s strange because afterwards, those same players who managed to beat her by using the spaces don’t seem to understand why they won and the next time, there they are bashing away at her from the baseline again and dumbfounded because it doesn’t work.

No one can trade power strokes from the baseline better than Serena Williams. The outcome is a foregone conclusion.

All this to underline the importance of watching spaces, even if our vision is more drawn to objects.

Have a great week.

And may your life never become an endurance test.

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