Column on Tennis & Luck

Tennis & Luck

Tibor R. Machan

Being an avid tennis fan, it has irked me that Woody Allen appears to believe that whether you win or lose a match is a matter of luck. That seems to have been his viewpoint in the movie he made a few years ago, appropriately titled Match Point. Then more recently he wrote and directed Whatever Works, starring Larry Davis, which seems also to drive home the notion that there is not much point in approaching one’s life by way of a sensible plan. No it is all pretty much random circumstances and the pragmatic attitude of, well, "whatever works" that’s going to determine how things go for a person. And one need not gather the message from his movies alone–after all, these are works of fiction and maybe Woody thinks the idea has artistic merit, true or not. So as not to leave any doubt about it, in several interviews Woody has reinforced the impression one gets from his films.

Although I find nearly every work of his intelligent and stimulating, I also consider this positions he appears to be driving home to his audiences quite mistaken. And watching the matches at the Australian Open, as I have been doing these last few days, and many of them at the U. S. Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the other tournaments I try to catch year after year suggest quite strongly that Woody is wrong about how tennis matches are won, at least the majority of the time.

There is one piece of evidence for this that shows in nearly every game played by the lineup of extraordinarily talented and hard working tennis players one sees watching these matches. This is that whenever luck does appear to play a role in winning a point, the beneficiary of this luck makes a gesture of apology, saying in effect, "I am sorry that I got you by sheer luck instead of as I would have liked, namely, my better play." Why would one make such a gesture if it is all a matter of luck? If every point is won by chance, not through concentration, training and skill, why single out the points won accidentally, so to speak, for mention? If it is all equally a matter of luck or chance, no such mention makes sense.

No one in his right mind can hold that luck or chance play not significant role in how well or badly one comes off in one’s life. These certainly factor in and to deny that amounts to sticking one’s head in the sand. For those who believe that we are all simply driven by impersonal forces to either succeed or fail in our endeavors, the Woody Allen thesis would come in handy. It’s all just que sera, sera. Never mind how insulting this is to all those who work their butts off to get ahead and whose efforts then seems to pay off. Never mind that even the observation that it’s all chance or luck loses merit, even if true, since one’s making it becomes also just a matter of chance of luck, not paying attention and having figured things out carefully, correctly. And never mind how destructive it can be for people to come to believe this idea, possibly leading them to give up on trying, on learning, on training and so forth since by the tenets of the thesis none of that matters, it is all an illusion.

So this is why I revisit and try to make an effort on and off to suggest elements of life that refute this viewpoint, attempting to counter it in my small ways, so that I contribute something to the task of spreading the notion that it does matter a great deal whether one pays attention, exerts effort and so on as one goes about pursuing the goals one has chosen to pursue in one’s life.

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