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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Match Point: Tennis and Dating at Dartmouth

One writer shares everything she knows about love and tennis, as someone who knows very little about love and tennis.

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Courtesy of Ellie Anderson

This article is featured in the 2024 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

Recently, tennis has been on my mind. Before my sophomore year at Dartmouth, I thought very little about tennis. Although I grew up in Florida, with clay country club courts abound, where parents send their children to train at elite tennis academies, this was not my experience. The closest I came to the pros was dinking around on the local park court behind my grandparents’ house with my little brother on hot summer days. We didn’t play with rules or for points — we just hit to watch the satisfying bounce of rubber and yellow fuzz against concrete.

During my sophomore year, I took my first creative writing class, CRWT 10, “Introduction to Fiction.” Although we were not writing nonfiction for class, the professor assigned “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” a New York Times article by David Foster Wallace. It was then that I visited the church of tennis for the first time. Foster Wallace chronicles Federer’s 2006 Wimbledon triumph over Rafael Nadal with the same fervor he experienced watching it firsthand. Finally, I got it. I pulled up the YouTube video of the match and was sucked into the world of power-baseline tennis — although I still don’t know much. What changes within the player in this game, where two people lock eyes and volley, where each hit is as calculated as chess?

I asked my friends what they knew about tennis and love. They’ve been misquoting an IMDb review for the 2024 tennis drama “Challengers,” which rewrote the Oscar Wilde quote: “Everything in the world is about sex — except sex. Sex is about power.” Replace power for tennis, and you have it. Tennis’s newfound sexiness can be attributed, in my mind, to “Challengers.

I watched the film the week it came out. After a screening at Nugget Theaters, my friends and I retreated to a dorm room and blasted the soundtrack as I reenacted Patrick Zweig’s crucial hit to Art Donaldson. Just as Foster Wallace writes about one of Federer’s iconic tics, Zweig places the tennis ball in the “V-shaped gap of the racket’s throat,” signaling to Donaldson that he slept with his wife, Tashi, played by Zendaya. The audience knows what Donaldson has realized. Tashi does not. 

Of course, it isn’t a coincidence that writer Justin Kuritzkes includes this detail. The film takes inspiration from Federer’s wife, Mirka, reacting to Federer’s 2019 Wimbledon match against Novak Djokovic and spins it into a twisted love triangle: Patrick loves Art, Art loves Tashi and Tashi loves tennis. 

Near the beginning of the film, Tashi speaks a line that stuck in my mind. She calls tennis — specifically her junior U.S. Open match against her rival, Anna Mueller — a relationship. 

“For about 15 seconds there, we were actually playing tennis,” she says. “And we understood each other completely. So did everyone watching. It’s like we were in love. Or like we didn’t exist. We went somewhere really beautiful together.” 

I left “Challengers” thinking how much I wanted that dynamic. I want that feeling. Does playing at the highest level feel like truly understanding your opponent? Does a game feel like love? Does love feel like a game?

This is where I return to Foster Wallace on Federer. He lauds Federer’s return to a style of tennis based on touch and subtlety, bolstered by his prowess and power. This has me thinking: tennis is not dissimilar to the Dartmouth dating scene. 

There was a point in time, before I arrived at Dartmouth, when I had mastered the art of touch and subtlety. Well, that is if you consider “touch and subtlety” holding onto a crush for five years, confessing your love to said crush facing rejection, only to start dating later that summer. I quickly realized that finesse had no place in the Dartmouth scene.

Maybe it’s telling that our preeminent method of flirting is a game played with four paddles, a small bouncy ball and a court — well, a 5’ x 10’ table. Dartmouth pong is modified table tennis — which is already miniature tennis — plus alcohol, which famously lowers one’s inhibitions. 

I’ve certainly experienced the growing or waning attraction one can feel during a game of pong. When things are going well, it’s all knuckle-bumps and hugs. A classic Dartmouth trope features the heterosexual couple, a talented male player ‘carrying’ the girl he’s trying to … romance — though the “romance” in question might look more like a sloppy makeout on Webster Ave. I’ve certainly been that girl, both because my pong skills are not the greatest and because playing pong is a simple way to build a connection — you’re sharing both your wins and losses. 

And going on dates does not feel easy at Dartmouth — take polling on Dartmouth students’ perceptions of hookup culture as evidence. Fifty-nine percent of the survey respondents said they perceived hookups to be the most prevalent relationship style on our campus.

The opposite is true when things are going poorly in the basement. I’ve played with overconfident men, men who serve off the table three times or lob stupid disses at our opponents. It’s not fun when your partner takes the game too seriously. What am I talking about now — love, or pong? 

As I look into the parallels between the relationships formed playing a game of pong or a game of tennis, I find that my romantic endeavors on this campus rarely approach Tashi’s quote. It’s hard to go somewhere beautiful together on a beer-slicked floor. Pong is no substitute for tennis, and perhaps the intimacy I’ve felt at Dartmouth is a watered-down experience of the deep connection I’m seeking.

Instead, I find myself leaning into the power-baseline game Foster Wallace describes, hitting hard and fast because there’s no time to set up the game. Send a flitz, flirt in the basement, have a one-night stand. Why not? Ten weeks does not allow for thinking five moves ahead. If finding love requires a back-and-forth game, good luck finding a partner to play with for more than a term. 

Even when you win, love becomes political. In our close-knit student body and concentric social circles, chances are someone is going to get hurt when you take on the title of hookup, situationship or girlfriend — all varying levels of intimacy.

I’ve also realized that winning a power-baseline game, where your eyes can barely track the ball as it flies across the court, doesn’t truly feel like winning. Can love really be founded on sexual attraction? I’ve found that those serves peter out. Eventually, someone won’t return the point. Maybe they won’t even try to.

And why do I find myself still playing the game? Sometimes I tell myself it’s for experience. In a Harper’s Magazine essay titled “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes,” Foster Wallace details his boyhood playing competitive tennis in the Midwest and the beauty of developing a kinesthetic sense of knowing just where to put the ball. His secret power, he writes, lies in understanding the wind on imperfect courts. Will I, too, know when the ball will land two inches inside the court lines after putting it out over and over again? Will I feel fulfillment when I find love in the game?

I instead want to look at one of the quotes from Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest”: “Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive … You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible.” My pain in seeking external love is born of neglecting that which I can only find within myself. I need to push past the edges of the limited self Foster Wallace describes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be spending our time playing pong if we’re only approximating that which we truly seek — transcendent self-love.