It’s natural that since tennis is a sport, such terms as “offense” and “defense” surface frequently. These two words, at least in theory, help players frame their decisions and form their understanding of how to build a playing style, assess an opponent and review what happened.
But perhaps we need some new language that transcends offense and defense. Certainly, a crackling Roger Federer backhand is offense. And a retrieval from far behind the baseline by Angelique Kerber is defense.
All in between is not so simple. Take the case of a player on his baseline. He strikes the ball deep and crosscourt, the shot landing within two feet of the baseline. Is that offense? Defense? If he does it again – once, twice, three times – where does that fit in? He’s not trying to hit a winner. Nor is he merely trying to keep the point alive from an extremely disadvantageous position.
We all know that it’s more important in tennis to minimize errors than strike winners. So how does that play out when watching such greats as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and, in an earlier era, Chris Evert? All three of these champions were masterful at striking the ball with repeated consistency and force, doing so with sustained depth and subtle variations in speed and spin. Evert, for example, was superb at destroying her opponents’ contact point, strand by strand. Just because she mostly did it from the baseline, was it necessarily defense?
At the other end of the playing spectrum, a netrusher like John McEnroe did not merely charge forward and try to strike volley winners. From the baseline, for example, McEnroe was extremely adept at gently but forcefully probing his opponent – and in time, eliciting the ball he could come to net on. McEnroe’s baseline style: Defense? Offense?
From 1971 to 2003, NBC and ABC aired a popular detective show called “Columbo.” Each episode began with a murder. In its wake, Lieutenant Columbo arrived on the scene, aiming his sights at the person the viewers knew had committed the crime – though of course at that time the murderer had constructed a seemingly air-tight alibi. Looking rather disheveled, Columbo would ask the suspect simple questions about such matters as time and logistics. In tennis terms, we would say these questions had little pace on them. The suspect would reply in a hasty manner, obviously eager to dispatch the annoying detective. But Columbo, always kindly, persisted. He’d finish a conversation with the suspect and then, just as he was about to leave the suspect’s home, issue his trademark statement: “Just one more thing.” In time, pinprick by pinprick, Columbo would put all the pieces together, issue an airtight explanation of what happened and arrest the suspect.
How best to understand Columbo’s seemingly innocuous barrage of questions? Defense? Offense? Perhaps, like Djokovic and Murray, Evert and McEnroe, let us call Columbo inquisitive. Maybe that’s the start of the new tennis language. Our shots should less be about terminal answers and more about posing questions. For as little pace as Columbo gave his opponent, he was never moving backwards.