When HBO broke the news that they would not be releasing the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones until 2019, it was left up to an unlikely Channel Seven to fill the void. Bronzed warriors and bitter foes, sweltering battles and unexpected kill-offs, cross-promotional endorsements to rival the most stomach-churning brother-on-sister incest scenes: it pleases me to say that after a fortnight of near round-the-clock drama, Game of Racquets (or, the ‘Australian Open’ to those purists who get their knickers in a knot over the whole A Song of Ice and Fire thing) has re-established itself as the best binge-watch on TV.
Notwithstanding the conspicuous lack of dragons, the similarities between GoT and GoR are stark (intended) and go beyond (or at least hand-in-hand with) mere wordplay. Fundamentally, both productions excel in one particular department: storytelling. And herein lies at least some of their appeal.
As a species, we are ‘inveterate producers and consumers of stories’ – addicts, if you will. From fairy tales to infomercials, political campaigns to interpretative dance recitals, three-thousand-year-old poems to 140-character tweets: nothing captures and holds our attention like a good story. They are, as Adam Gopnik writing for The New Yorker puts it, ‘the currency of life.’
Want proof? Try watching the first three minutes of an episode of CSI and then turning the TV off. Or holding your tongue when somebody says, ‘Knock-knock.’ Or keeping firm to your one-episode-a-night rule on weekdays when you’ve just witnessed the incineration of half the Lannister army. Dragging oneself away from a good tale before finding out how it ends is like going to bed in in the middle of a Wozniacki-Halep three-setter: next to impossible.
So, what is it that makes for a good story? And what does any of this have to do with tennis?
The first of these questions was addressed by Aristotle some two and a half thousand years ago in his very un-tennisy treatise, Poetics. Here, Aristotle lists six major components of a good story: plot/action, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle. On the question of which of these six is most important, Aristotle is unequivocal: ‘Tragedy’, he says, ‘is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery. In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of the action.’
Action, action, action. And then character. And then, well, we’ve only got so much space here …
Fortunately, we didn’t need the Rolex-sponsored replays to spot the action on Margaret Court Arena. Two, or sometimes four, players took turns at hitting a fuzzy yellow thing back and forth over the net. Sometimes it landed where it was supposed to. Sometimes it didn’t. Riveting, right? Happiness and misery, right? Life itself, right? Well, okay, when you put it like that, one could be forgiven for assuming you needed Bruce McAvaney-level insight (or Jim Courier-level hyperbole) to turn this into a convincing metaphor. Jump forward a few millennia, though, and I’m convinced you’ll see how nicely all of this fits into the dual narrative schema that Aristotle’s benefactor, Professor Rick Altman, identifies in his equally un-tennisy A Theory of Narrative.
According to Altman, who is Professor of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, the ‘fundamental logic of dual-focus epic’ (stories with more than one protagonist) involves ‘two rivals laying claim to the same space.’ Whether it’s a chess board made up of 64 squares, a fictitious earth made up of seven kingdoms, a street corner made up of Jets and Sharks, or a blue-coloured rectangle made up of something called Plexicushion Prestige, the basis for good storytelling often comes down to this quite simple catalyst for conflict: a territory that ‘ain’t big enough for the both of us’, or as commentator Sam Smith put it during the epic third-round match between Simona Halep and Lauren Davis: ‘[Two] players up on their baseline, refusing to give ground.’
Think of all the stories you know and love. Do they take place in finite worlds with clearly demarcated boundaries? Can you distinguish the areas occupied or controlled by the good guys, and those that fall under baddy jurisdiction? And what happens when one party crosses the line and tries laying claim to the other’s turf? Is this when things get interesting? Stories rely on conflict, on encroachment, on belligerent and unexpected charges at the net. Clearly defined boundaries are as essential to the narrative arena as sidelines, baselines and service boxes are to Rod Laver arena.
Now, in a dual-focus narrative (like tennis), where ‘[e]ach action calls for a matching action, and thus, automatically, for modulation to the counterpart character’ (Altman again), the drama is spurred on by one’s opponent. Put simply, players are forced to rise to the challenges laid down by their adversaries. Whether it be returning one of Milos Raonic’s 236 km/h serves (billed as fastest in the tournament), or one of Lauren Davis’s 126 km/h backhands (proven the fastest in tournament), all real drama, William Packard tells us in The Art of the Playwright, comes down to ‘the everlasting conflict of powerful actions coming up against strong obstacles’. This is why we derive the same enjoyment from a round-three slog-out between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Nick Kyrgios as we do from a season-four slog-out between, say, the Hound and Brienne of Tarth. It is the modulation of action between two equally opposing forces. One hits and the other hits back. With interest.
This intensification of action is called plot. And it is very, very important to storytelling. Remember the way all the White Walkers were killed off in season one and things in Westeros have been gradually winding down over ever since? Or the way they got the issue of Jon Snow’s true identity out of the way nice and early so we wouldn’t have to think too much about it for the next six seasons? Of course you don’t. Because this would contradict the most fundamental of all dramatic principles: that you save the biggest and best until last.
Tournament organisers understand this rule of intensification every bit as well as Hollywood screenwriters, which is why top-tier players don’t face off until the latter stages of the tournament. Because to do so prematurely would be to undermine not just the importance but the very function of plot, which, as screenwriting guru Robert McKee explains, ‘is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures’. Difficult circumstances revealing true natures? Hmmm, Roger Federer breaking down in tears as he hoisted the cup up over his head for yet another year, anyone?
Okay, so this brings us to the second most important element of story: character. Sports telecaster David Neal of ESPN describes athletes as being ‘part of a cast of characters’ and his job as ‘[giving] people a reason to care about these characters’. Dramatists refer to this reason as backstory. It’s about building empathy between the character and the viewer. A player coming back from injury, for example, or nursing a grudge from last year’s upset, or battling personal demons or competing for a new grand-slam record makes for a rounder, richer, more relatable character – a point that was echoed by Roger Federer after knocking Thomas Berdych out in the quarter finals. Asked about the image of Flinders Street Station on his shoes, Federer replied: ‘I think storytelling’s really important in sports, you know, where we come from, what we do, the places we play in …’ Which, at the end of the day, is why we come to root for certain players over others – or against certain players as their backstory might decree (is it just me, or is anyone else hoping for a miraculous return from the dead from superbrat Bernard Joffrey Tomic next season? He’s just so villainous!)
So, there you have it: tennis, a series of ever-intensifying encounters between interesting characters within a clearly defined narrative space. Is it any wonder that Sanyin Siang of Duke University describes such sports as the ultimate serial stories? Aristotle would think not (sorry, Descartes).
Image: Babolat love / flickr