Wednesday, 1 February 2012

My Favourite Reality TV

According to the New Yorker,  researchers at the National Institute of Health have discovered that "diazepam - more commonly known as valium - has no discernible effect on anxiety unless a person knows he is taking it."

I read this odd little piece of information just after I'd written about the steps I climb most days and the odd fact that, were I to encounter them at a different point on my walk, I might find them very much harder to bear. Shortly afterwards, I heard Ricky Ponting say this, in answer to a question about his long period of poor performance on the cricket pitch:

"It's amazing when you're going through a lean trot, how many little things creep into your head and get in the way of what you're trying to do."

"How strange a thing is the human mind," I thought, "sometimes it is unable to recognise that a chemical is at work on it, unless it is told that that is what is happening; in certain circumstances it is happy to put up with something that at other times it would find unendurable; if not watched carefully, it is more than capable of undermining a considerable talent like Ricky Ponting's with creeping, slithering, self-perpetuating fears ."

Then came the annual feast of wall-to-wall tennis that is the lead up to, and then the actual, Australian Open. We saw Samantha Stosur, (who, in beating Serena Williams to win the US Open, proved she knows all there is to know about technique, when it comes to playing tennis), lose a "battle with mental demons", as one newspaper put it.  Despite facing a far less daunting physical opponent than Serena Williams, she went down 6-2, 6-4. The only explanation she could offer was this:

"I think the whole emotional side of things really took over today ... I certainly didn't handle that side of things at all well."

Ponting, I suspect, would understand.

A week or two later, we saw Kim Clijsters damage her ankle during her fourth round match against Li Na but continue playing, eventually prevailing, despite considerable pain. This is how the Australian reported her triumph:

'"I have no idea how I won," Clijsters said ...The drama began when Clijsters went over on her left ankle, serving at 30-30 and 3-3 in the first set. Incredibly she got off the floor and finished the point after her ankle gave way. Most thought she would be lucky to see out the set as the WTA trainer applied three layers of different tape to support the ankle. Clijsters also gulped down two painkillers. "It definitely crossed my mind a couple of times," Clijsters said referring to thoughts of retirement at that stage. "But I knew if I could just try to kind of let the medication sink in or, if I could get through the first 20 minutes, half hour, you know, I think the pain would go away a little bit ... and I did and I'm happy that I didn't give up."'

Even more spectacularly, a few days after that Lleyton Hewitt came from being ranked 181 on the eve of the open, only allowed in on a wildcard, to reaching the fourth round where he gave Novak Djokovic, the world number one, a reasonable run for his money, despite being riddled with injury.

"A couple of months ago I didn't know if I would be able to play," Hewitt was quoted as saying, again in the Australian, which went on to report that the player has 'more crook joints than Dodge City...Wonky hips, knee and toe have required five significant surgeries" (and I have also read that one of his toes no longer has any cartilage and causes him  constant pain).

It is this that makes me love watching tennis - the way it reveals so starkly the influence of the mind. For the successful players are not the ones who possess physical skill alone but those who also embody a tough unneurotic sense of endurance, an untiring persistence which carries them through to either win or at least to have the tenacity to return again to the arena following defeat.   It is the only sport I know where what you come to see is not only a physical battle but also a test of an individual's mental strength. Out there, alone on the court, the scene is almost gladiatorial -  the two combatants pit themselves against each other, and the skills they need are often more to do with mental state than technical or physical prowess. They have to conquer their opponent's merciless backhand, but they must also overcome the little things Ponting described that 'creep into your head'.

And that  is why I believe that telecasts of live tennis tournaments are the only true reality TV. While in theory Big Brother reveals a lot about human nature, relaying what happens when random people are forced to coexist, what it presents is actually a fair way from the truth. In reality, (as opposed to reality TV reality), crafty editors transform the events in the 'Big Brother household' into a kind of unscripted fiction; they shape our understanding of the personalities involved and allow us to see only a fraction of what really takes place.

On the tennis court, by contrast, there is no opportunity for manipulation. Nothing can be edited out. What is presented to viewers is as close as it can be to an unfiltered record of what is actually happening. The struggle between two individuals unfolds before us, and in the few hours it takes to reach a conclusion we see more real human behaviour than in months of what is designated as 'reality tv'. Instead of false emotional crescendoes, manufactured through tampering with the flow of scenes, we witness displays of ambition, fear, tenacity or ingrained pessimism, as each player's true nature is revealed. The way each one masters or lets their emotions get the better of them makes all the difference to the outcome. The power of the mind is vividly on display.

As a result, the game often delivers huge surprises. For example, halfway through the match between Birdych and Nadal, it seemed certain that Birdych would overcome the Spaniard, who seemed to have no answer to the other man's relentless aces. However, somehow, as we watched, Nadal found reserves of energy and hope and intelligence, and eventually, largely through pure determination, managed to win through.

Similarly, I remember sitting through that long and astonishing Wimbledon final between Federer and Roddick some years ago, a match which Federer won, seemingly entirely by dint of being determined to do so, despite at moments looking as though he had not a single chance (and, incidentally, the most disappointing thing about that game was the fact that, although we were given long interviews with the victor, we had no chance to hear Roddick's side of the story - I would love to have been given some insights into what it felt like to have fought so hard and come so tantalisingly close to victory and then to have had it slip from your hands).

Even the extraordinary struggle that took place between Djokovic and Nadal on Sunday evening, in which the  power seemed to move almost tidally between the two of them, may ultimately have come down to psychology rather than technique. After all, according to the commentators, this was Nadal's response to a question after the US Open about whether Djokovic had somehow psychologically mesmerised him:

"You all know, I know, he knows, that he has got inside my head."

Could the thing finally have come down to this one factor - a mental chink of weakness, of lack of self-belief that dictated from the first moment that Nadal was heading for defeat?

Of course, there is always the criticism that this is all nonsense, that tennis is merely a few silly - or greedy - people running about hitting a round thing with a an odd shaped loop that's been threaded with strings. While that's true on one level, I still think the game represents more than that. Patrick Smith, a journalist at the Australian, appears to agree with me when he speculates about whether we can learn from Lleyton Hewitt's example on the tennis court:

"Have you ever thought what our lives might have been, or might be, if we were Little Lleyton? Not our tennis game, forget the lob and the volley, but our lives themselves ...It doesn't matter what we do, how we make a quid, run the household or maybe play the piano. Journo, accountant, carpenter, musician, mother, partner. Whatever. If Little Lleyton was the voice inside our head there would not be one part of our endeavours that was not pushed, probed, stretched or pulled apart to see if one more morsel of success could not be unlocked ... If all of us chased our dreams with the commitment Hewitt practises, prepares and plays his tennis, we might write a better story, build a better house, play a better tune."

I can't add a thing to that except, 'Roll on Wimbledon.'

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