The best tennis players in the world, those closing in on winning the French Open, are repeatedly choosing not to watch the ball. There’s an intriguing feature in the July issue of Wired magazine about how technology is helping athletes to improve their performance – it cites a study which has shown that tennis players often anticipate where an opponent is serving by looking at his or her trunks, hips, shoulders and arms. But not at the ball. They ignore the ball. If you want to predict where an opponent is going to serve, you don’t always choose to watch the ball.
As Wired put it, tennis players predominantly watch an opponent’s body, not the ball, “and unconsciously they extract this information to anticipate accurately what’s going to happen.”
Mark Williams, a professor of motor behaviour at Liverpool John Moores University, has examined how tennis players react to their opponents’s movement. His study involved putting players in front of a screen which was displaying a life-size image of a tennis player about to serve. “He had them anticipate their opponent’s action by responding physically to the film,” Wired reported. “He then occluded parts of the clip sequence – for instance, making the screen go black just before the ball was struck – to find out whether the tennis players could anticipate the opponent’s serve.”
It was Williams’s conclusion that, “the time taken for the ball to travel from one opponent to the other is often shorter than the combined sum of the athlete’s reaction time and movement time. That means that, “athletes need to initiate a response before an opponent actually strikes the ball – typically, they have already anticipated where the ball is going 120 milliseconds before the ball made contact with the racket.”
The Parisians should not be discouraged from booing Andy Murray when he plays David Ferrer (not that any amount of discouragement would stop them). And not just because the booing could help Murray’s cause. Because the booing adds to the character of the event. Yes, if Murray played Richard Gasquet at the All England Club this summer, the Frenchman would have to set fire to the umpire’s chair to feel any heat from the crowd, but that’s Wimbledon, and this is Roland Garros. Don’t we want the grand slams to be different? Don’t we want our crowds in Paris ti be haughty, high-minded, infantile, well-informed, grossly-unfair and sometimes as entertaining as the players.
Who was being the more ridiculous this week? The Parisians booing Murray before he had even played a shot against Richard Gasquet? Or, on the other side of the Channel, the Anglo-Saxons working themselves into a state about how the French were treating Murray? As if the heckling at Roland Garros was either surprising, vicious or in any way damaging to Murray’s chances of progressing on the draw-sheet. Murray wasn’t taking the booing too seriously, and neither should anyone else. There was something cartoonish about all this. And it was not as if Murray had been singled out or targeted.
Just minutes earlier, the crowds had been booing Maria Sharapova. Not a day passes at Roland Garros without someone being booed. Murray should only have been concerned if he wasn’t being booed, if the Parisians couldn’t be bothered to hiss and whistle him.