Strikes and Serves: An introduction into the parallels between tennis and combat sports

I write about MMA and tennis. It's not much of a secret: not many people share my dual passion for both sports. I found…

By: Karim Zidan | 9 years ago
Strikes and Serves: An introduction into the parallels between tennis and combat sports
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

I write about MMA and tennis.

It’s not much of a secret: not many people share my dual passion for both sports. I found the contrasts quite challenging at first, but over time, as I added to my sporting knowledge, I began to find the similarities overwhelming.

Tennis players have been quoted comparing themselves to boxers based on the structure of their competition. Both sports tread the line of single combat, where competitors attempt to defeat their opponent by dealing punishing blows/shots. Apart from the obvious play on words, there is a deeper meaning to that sentiment. Why do tennis stars seem to find sanctuary in boxing comparisons and how far do the parallels between the two sports go?

At first the affinity may seem farfetched. Some may consider it ridiculous and inconceivable whilst others may even dub it blasphemy. Yet when stretched slightly past the physical level, one does grasp the broad similarities between the two compelling sports. Once the surface has been scratched,  the parallels between the two seem infinite.

Tennis, not unlike Mixed Martial Arts, started out as a marginalized activity, far from the broad popularity that sports like football (soccer for North Americans) enjoyed. It struggled for monetary success in its early years, albeit for different reasons than MMA. In the early 1900’s, tennis was presented as a lord’s game, and was therefore appreciated mostly by the elite of Europe before the world wars fundamentally changed the structure of society.

In its initial forms, tennis featured only amateur competitors who played for glory and national pride instead of monetary gain. That dynamic changed in the late 1960’s and brought about a surge in popularity for the sport. Tennis went from being a lord’s game, similar to croquet, to a widely accessible sport with worldwide implications.

While MMA did not, for obvious reasons, have to worry about being labeled as a lord’s game, it certainly had its own hardships prior to exploding on a global proportion. Once considered barbaric and gruesome, most States refused to legalize “cage-fighting” and it was soon taken off Pay-Per-View. ZUFFA, bought the promotion in 2003, and proceeded to re-brand and recreate the image of MMA, transforming it into a global phenomenon. The process took close to a decade, which may seem like a like an insignificantly short span of time, a closer look would prove otherwise.

Indeed, tennis has been around for close to two centuries, but many may be surprised to learn that it did not garner significant global attention until the period between 1970-90, in an era known as the “Golden Age of Tennis.”

It was a period that saw intense rivalries – athletes and leagues alike were all in heated battle for supremacy, leading to a general increase in the quality of the game – a cult of celebrity, as well as copious amount of corruption, match fixing, drug abuse and much more. Most casual sports fans – even curious tennis fans – are blissfully unaware of the latter points mentioned but it was certainly that key period that sparked an intense restructuring of regulation in tennis.

It was also this epoch that inspired many of the parallels I have found between these two sports. Some were basic and non-exclusive, which I will introduce introduce today to get the comparative juices flowing, while others showed a distinct pattern and a curious likeness worthy of separate subsequent articles.

Allow me to share some of them with you now:

Riveting Rivalries

One of the key similarities between tennis and combat sports is rivalries-enchanting feuds that transcend boundaries and captivate audiences. Both sporting categories have had their fair share of rivalries of this nature, and it has greatly added to their development.

The rivalries between these athletes were not limited specifically to on-court/in-ring competition. Many rivalries were fuelled outside of professional spheres for months or even years before finally culminating in highly anticipated competition.

A prime example in MMA would be Tito Ortiz’s heated rivalries with Ken Shamrock and Chuck Liddell, which undoubtedly helped expand the UFC’s audience at the time through the copious amounts of trash-talking and intense buildup to the long awaited culmination.

In tennis, Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe produced arguably the most iconic matches in the sport’s history. Their Wimbledon final in 1980 is still hailed by many fans and pundits alike as the greatest match of all time. Apart from being the tour’s top two stars at the time, Borg and McEnroe tapped into an entirely new fanbase that had never previously cared about the sport beyond occasional curiosity. McEnroe: brash, temperamental with strokes of fiery brilliance; Borg: handsome, icy and piercingly precise. They were polar opposites in both character and stylistic approach to the game, which made each encounter essential viewing.

For this interested, here is the HBO Sports “Fire & Ice” documentary which details the iconic rivalry and the match that created the legend:

Yet it was not just the rivalries that made propel these sports.

Captivating Characters

Individualistic sports thrive on characters. Not simply elite competitors but personalities that can appeal to the masses to make up for the lack of a team to root for. Manchester United fans will remain loyal to their team no matter the current roster of stars, but competitors in solo sports like tennis and MMA have to rely not only on talent and ability but also on individual persona to garner the necessary attention.

Charismatic/enigmatic personalities may not be exclusive to these two sports, but it is certainly where it was most prevalent at the time. Boxing had the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather to name a few, while MMA saw Chuck Liddell, Quinton Jackson, Nick Diaz, Brock Lesnar, and now Conor McGregor.

Bjorn Borg was undoubtedly tennis’ first major breakout star; the mantlepiece of what would soon become the sport’s golden era. Whilst not the most charismatic person to swing a racquet, he was by far the most enigmatic. He was a mystery to all those around him, established outrageous rituals and superstitions – such as not shaving throughout the entire two-week duration of the Wimbledon Championships – and always maintained the same daunting, ice-cold exterior.’s Ravi Ubha puts it best in his tribute to the legend:

“Borg was the closest thing the sport had to a rock star back then, and perhaps no player has captured the public’s imagination the same way since.

His long, blond locks, trademark headband and lean frame had his female fans drooling, while his two-handed backhand, superb fitness and mental toughness had opponents fearing. The lack of emotion and shyness only added to the intrigue.”

It was a remarkable medley of traits; Borg enjoyed a level of superstardom that had never been seen before in tennis, yet he would retire at age 26, when his rivalry with John McEnroe had run its course and he felt detached from the tennis community.

Following an era thronged with style and personality, some would suggest that tennis is now struggling to pull in competitive ratings due to the lack of significant star power outside of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. While the tour is brimming with budding young prospects, it is unclear whether any of these athletes will resonate with the public the same way that their predecessors managed to.

Maybe those guys are not the most brilliant on earth but, when they face each other down at the weigh-in, they bring what the fans want: war, blood, emotion.

This leads us to an intriguing intersection on this educational odyssey: can tennis stars possibly learn from combat sports when it comes to self-promotion? Should they disregard repetitive PR dribble in favour of quote-worthy statements that could potentially shock and awe?

Some tennis stars think that is precisely what should be done.

In an attempt to explain to a press room full of reporters the problems with tennis and it’s top stars, Latvian No. 1 Ernests Gulbis used a boxing example to emphasize his point.

“I would like interviews to be more like in boxing. OK, maybe those guys are not the most brilliant on earth but, when they face each other down at the weigh-in, they bring what the fans want: war, blood, emotion. All that is missing in tennis, where everything is clean and white with polite handshakes and some nice shots, while the people want to see broken rackets and hear outbursts on the court.”

Seven-time Grand Slam champion and Wimbledon great John McEnroe who was known for his temper tantrum and on-court battles with officials, agreed with the young Latvian’s controversial opinion and added that it could be a key factor for tennis to thrive amongst heavy competition from over sports.

“Entertainment value is the wrong phrase. It seems like when you’re in a one-on-one sport, you need it especially when there are so many [other sports competing against tennis] than there were in the past. It seems like there’s got to be a way to grab the fans more.

“We are doing reasonably well in Europe. The sport seems on a solid footing. But not having a top American, people aren’t grabbed by it. They respect what they’re seeing and look [at it] in awe, there’s no question about it, the athleticism, the shot-making – but they don’t see a great deal of difference in the players. They don’t know much about the players.”

The problem is that anger and raw emotion, which worked for McEnroe in the 80s, does not resonate well with modern tennis fans, or with the regulatory body for that matter. A fantastic example of this is top Italian Fabio Fognini, who had a famous “don’t be scared” outburst against umpire Mohamed Lahyani that led to an $82,500 fine being taken out of his $350,000 cheque.

The lonely arts?

As both a tennis and MMA writer, I was surprised to find that quite a few tennis players compared themselves to boxers. What is even more interesting is why these individuals feel compelled to compare themselves to a athletes in sport that seemingly has very little to do with their own.

Retired American tennis legend Andre Agassi articulated it best in his telling autobiography ‘Open’:

“Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players – and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer’s opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They’re inches away. In tennis you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement….”

It is quite an interesting point to mull over. Boxers return to their respective corners every 3 minutes for a short break – MMA fighters ever 5 minutes – and are given instructions as to how to proceed if the going gets tough. Tennis players, however, could be on court for over four hours without the help or support of their coaching staff, who are usually seated in the stands overlooking the match. Is it just a matter of semantics or is tennis truly the loneliest sport in the world?

He is not the only one to draw comparisons between tennis players and boxers, as former Wimbledon Champion and current British No. 1 Andy Murray was quoted by the BBC offering his own comparison between tennis players and boxers:

“I’d say Roger Federer would be like Sugar Ray Leonard, renowned for his style. Rafael Nadal would be like Manny Pacquiao; ferocious, powerful and relentless. Novak Djokovic would be like Roberto Duran; as tough and versatile as they come. I’ll pick Floyd Mayweather for myself; he’s my favourite boxer to watch.”

This may be a common association for tennis players to make but that does not mean combat athletes see it as well. Frank Mir tried to explain the similarities to Forrest Griffin, Jon Jones and Chuck Liddell with little to show for his efforts.

What’s next?

Now that I have left you with a few basic correlations to mull over, we can make way for the more subtle similarities between the two sports, particularly during the ‘teething years’ where they were tried to manage overwhelming and rapid growth. While it may be amusing to nitpick at the small similarities between the two sports, the more significant correlation between MMA and tennis is their respective rise from obscurity. Their paths may have varied but the results bear striking resemblance.

The next piece will feature a detailed breakdown of the business side of tennis and how a variety of competing leagues eventually moulded into the current model – the ATP World Tour – that fans are accustomed to. We will also discuss players associations and how they came to find a find a home in a sport that was begging for financial support for their athletes. Finally, we will also determine whether the past 30 years in tennis history could be used to extrapolate the potential future of MMA.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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