Seeing the ball

1st July 2014 | Concerts, Musings | 1 comment

Although I take no interest in tennis the rest of the year, when this time of year rolls around I suddenly get very involved in watching tennis from the Wimbledon Championships. I become so interested that I wonder why I don’t continue to follow the fortunes of these players as they move off to other tournaments in other parts of the world. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that the players have to wear white at Wimbledon. When I happen to catch a televised match from, say, Australia or the US, where players might appear on a clay court in black knee-length shorts, a sleeveless blue t-shirt and red trainers, I feel curiously disappointed, even though the tennis is just as good. The lush green grass of Wimbledon is a factor in its favour. Crisp whites moving against fresh green … it’s soothing.

At this point in the tournament, commentators start to talk about who is ‘seeing the ball’ better than others. This is one of those observations that clearly has a lot behind it. All the players must see the ball extremely well, or they wouldn’t be there, but it’s true that some appear to react in a way that suggests enhanced ‘vision’, if that is the right word. I’ve heard sports people of different kinds talk about ‘seeing the ball very big’. I’ve heard them suggest that when they’re playing really well, they see the ball so big that they felt they couldn’t miss it. When things are going badly, the ball can appear to be smaller than it really is. The size of the ball is clearly a matter of perception rather than ‘seeing’ as we know it.

All this fascinates me because of the correlations with playing music with other people. No sportsman myself, I nevertheless feel I know exactly what they mean by ‘seeing the ball big’. It’s that feeling you get when you’re performing, when you’re ‘in the zone’, when you feel you have all the time in the world to react appropriately to any signal or action lobbed your way by one of the other players. You can sense when something’s going wrong and adjust. You can sense when something’s going to go differently all of a sudden. You can rise to the occasion when things go better than they ever have before. You become hyper-sensitive to other people’s modes of expression, to the point where you feel nothing can surprise you. Whatever happens, you have plenty of time to react. This is a very enjoyable feeling, but (in my experience at least) not one that you can consciously bring into being, except by being very prepared, and open to new information. I suppose that is one of the points of doing the preparation: so that you have a better chance of seeing the notes big.

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