Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Competition as dialogue? A tennis player objects.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 30, 2024

In talk yesterday to a Spanish tennis club, Pope Francis made the remarkable assertion that the game is “not just a battle, but also a dialogue.”

Having been a competitive tennis player in my youth, I was flattened by that observation. Still more stunning was the Pope’s attempt to dismiss the idea that tennis “has to do primarily with the desire to prevail over the adversary.” Let me assure you that when I played a match, my goal was to win—which necessarily meant that my opponent would lose. I assumed that he had the same goal, and if he did not, I would have considered it an insult, to me and to the game. When the Pope said that tennis “is not a battle,” he was describing a game with which I am not familiar.

Oddly enough, Pope Francis began his remarks by sending his congratulations to Italian athletes who had won the previous day. Why? Because they won, and that’s the point.

Every Pontiff occasionally hosts a visiting athletic team for a private audience, and tries to say something about the true purposes of competition. In such cases Pope Francis has usually said something about teamwork: a topic that lends itself nicely to moral instruction. But since tennis players usually compete as individuals (with doubles play as a secondary option), the theme of teamwork would not fit. So he looked to the origins of the game, and said “it is an expression of the openness of the founders to the good that could come from outside and from dialogue with other cultures.” Reading that line, I had to chuckle.

Walk onto a tennis court, and what do you see? Lines, which the ball and/or the player cannot cross. Hit a powerful shot that lands one inch beyond the baseline, and you receive no credit. Nothing good comes from outside.

And dialogue? Tennis, like other games, has very strict, arbitrary—dare I say rigid?—rules of play. The ball cannot bounce twice. Your racket cannot hit the net. Why not? Because those are the rules; they are not questioned.

To be fair, I suppose that when he spoke of “dialogue” in tennis, Pope Francis meant dialogue between the players. But again the idea does not match my experience. If a tennis player talks to his opponent while the ball is in play, that is considered gamesmanship: an offense against the spirit of the game.

True, a tennis game can furnish a pleasant social occasion, giving two or four people an opportunity to get together, with a plan to chat (or dialogue, if you prefer) between points. But those friendly conversations take place at the net, before the next serve—that is, not when tennis is actually being played. It isn’t easy to talk to someone who is running back and forth, chasing balls, 120 feet away.

Granted, it is also possible to have spent a pleasant hour hitting balls back and forth, not keeping score, trying to keep the rally going. Maybe two players would practice this way, from time to time giving each other tips, and thus arguably engaging in what the Pope described as “a dialogue that involves our effort and allows us to improve.” But if they are just batting balls back and forth, that isn’t the game of tennis. And if they are practicing, what is their ultimate goal? To be better able to “prevail over the adversary.”

If you’re keeping score, it is in order to determine who wins. If you participate in an athletic contest, and you’re not trying to win, something is wrong. You may have reasons for failing to compete honestly, but whatever those reasons are, they are foreign to the game. Competition is, by definition, an effort to prevail.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: DrJazz - Jan. 31, 2024 8:13 AM ET USA

    This is a sign of our times. The ideas of "dialog," "fairness," "ties," "everyone gets a trophy," and "win-win" are all related. They stem from the idea that, if we could "just talk it out," everyone would respect each other and benefit, and no one would ever lose or suffer. We have lost the ideas that winning in sports (besides being fun) can be a way to reshape the will to dominate others, that a drive to win can shape one's work ethic, and that losing can help us accept suffering with grace.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Jan. 30, 2024 9:32 PM ET USA

    Dialogue has become a magic bullet with no doctrinal pedigree to be inserted everywhere. Romano Amerio pointed out (Iota Unum) “The word is completely unknown and unusual in the doctrine before the Council. It is not found once in previous Councils, not in papal encyclicals, not in homiletics and pastoral parenetics…. But this word, very new in the Catholic Church, became, with lightning-fast propagation and enormous semantic expansion, the main word of post-conciliar protology