I played competitive tennis growing up and was fairly decent. I had a racquet in my hand at around 5, played tournaments since 10, and had my relative singles ability peak around 14. I still play often, and most recently was a hitting partner for the UCLA’s women’s tennis team.

The upshot is that I’ve been in/around the game for a while. When I was younger, tennis was my only model about risk/reward/accomplishment/the world, so it heavily influenced my thinking. Over time I made some generalizations from tennis to the world, both good and bad. Here they are.

  • The world is zero-sum
    • Tennis matches are zero-sum.
  • The way to win is to not make mistakes
    • At lower levels, you can win tons of matches by just getting the ball back and limiting unforced errors. Very few players get to the level of needing/being able to incorporate risk in their game.
  • Every “point” matters the same
    • There are no differential payoffs in tennis. No matter what, you only earn one point per exchange. This can cause a degree of risk aversion since you ostensibly have no reason to take on more risk for a given point.
  • Persistence Succeeds
    • The best players practice a lot, and they also don’t give up. Even when they’re down in a match, they will continue to make life difficult for an opponent. I’m reminded how Magnus Carlson was rated the most “nettlesome” chess player because he can “induce errors by relentlessly playing moves that are not only good, but bothersome.” Great tennis players are bothersome from behind (and ahead).
  • The less emotional memory, the better
    • The ideal tennis player has the Markov property for emotions. A lot of players make the mistake of dwelling on misfortune during a match. A let cord might not go your way, and then you lose the next three points while you’re still fuming about the fact. Effective players are able to let those things go, and play on as if they never happened. (Some players can up their level when they’re pissed, so it’s worth it for them to fixate on something negative. This is rare though).
  • Mental toughness determines much of performance
    • Great tennis players are good under pressure. The fastest/prettiest forehand does no good if you can’t get it in facing break point.
  • Mediocre people often vastly overestimate their own abilities
    • so-so tennis players will often think they’re much better than they really are. There’s a bit of Dunning-Kruger in here, but I think not playing tournaments is also responsible. You can get an unambiguous sense of your ability by playing competitively. It’s difficult to overestimate yourself if you’re always losing in the first round.
  • Only you can deal with your problems
    • There’s no coaching in a competitive tennis match. If something is going wrong, you’re the only one who can fix it.
  • You can be fiery
    • People tolerate a lot on the tennis court as long you’re nice off of it. You can yell, scream, pump yourself up, throw a fit, be as McEnroe-like as possible, and as long as you’re agreeable in non-tennis situations few seem to mind.
  • Technique determines outcomes
    • The way you hit a tennis ball matters a lot. Just by watching someone do a practice swing you can get a sense of how much spin they can create, what the trajectory of their ball will be, and how they might be able to handle low balls. You can also see if a stroke can break down under pressure.
  • Winning clearly defined competitions is how you progress
    • In every tennis match, there is a winner and a loser. The winner gets more opportunities, approbation, reward, and the loser hits the practice courts so they can win. It doesn’t help much to ingratiate yourself with the correct people or look busy. Succeeding is just a matter of being the clearly defined winner a lot.
  • Compete where you have an advantage
    • It’s no use getting into a forehand rally with someone with a better forehand. Find some area of the court/stroke/position where you excel.
  • The best people have fun
    • You can tell very good tennis players love the game (with few exceptions). In drills/non-matchplay, they’re smiling,laughing, trash-talking. It looks like they don’t want to be anywhere else. This is especially true of the best player I’ve ever hit with (former top 20 pro). He has a lot of fun.

9/15 addition

Someone pointed out we can probably learn something about rule-enforcement from tennis. In all but the highest-level junior tournaments, only 5% of the match will be supervised by an umpire/official. This means there are ample opportunities cheat.

What’s notable from my experience (tournaments in PNW - no national tournaments) is how the cheating was distributed. Everyone was pretty honest except for 2-3 kids. They were notorious, and you could expect many bad calls throughout the match.

Perhaps the generalization to make here is about norms and reputation? The probability of getting caught cheating was small, but very few people did it consistently (even the most honest people will make bad line calls occasionally). Are expectations and reputation effects powerful enough to make very little formal enforcement work?