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Is tennis the second most athletic sport in the world?

This article looks at past efforts to resolve the most contentious of debates - which is the most athletic sport of all?

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 08:  Roger Federer of Switzerland serves during the Men's Singles Semi Final match against Milos Raonic of Canada on day eleven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 8, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

In the recently concluded Rio Olympics, Ashton Eaton, decathlon champion and regarded by many as among the greatest athletes in the world, was asked his opinions about the most athletic sport in the world. His answer was somewhat surprising.

While he acknowledged his sport as the most objective measure of sheer athleticism – every individual event within the decathlon gets an individual score, with the winner being decided by the combined performance across all disciplines – he added it would be imperfect to define athleticism using only measures of physical performance.

“There’s the body, and then there’s definitely the mind”, said Eaton. He chose tennis as the second most athletic sport, reasoning tennis is closer than other sports to evaluating an athlete’s performance using what he termed a “holistic approach”. Among the reasons he listed for putting tennis right at the top were, “the technical aspect, the agility, the mind-body awareness… and the game itself… which is a little bit like a chess match”.

How do we go about defining the toughest sport in the world? What is the skillset required to become the greatest athlete? Is it prudent to compare multiple sports across diverse categories? As it turns out, the jury is still out.

In 2009, ESPN developed the Ultimate Sports Degree of Difficulty project, to list the world’s toughest sports. A multi-expert panel was constituted, consisting of sports scientists, academicians from kinesiology and developmental psychology, a two-sport athlete and sports journalists. The panel identified ten categories (or skills) and rated each sport on these skills, using a scale of 1 to 10. The ten skills were –

  • Endurance
  • Strength
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Agility
  • Flexibility
  • Nerve
  • Durability
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Analytic aptitude

As many as 60 sports were evaluated.  The sport which finished at the top was boxing (72.375), narrowly edging out ice hockey (71.750).  Boxing scored at least 5.63 on every parameter, save one. In five skill categories, it listed in the top five, and in the top 20 in four others.  Eric Stevens, a long-time boxing coach in the US says it’s no coincidence that boxing’s highest score was in nerve (8.88), since an innate quality of boxers needs to be ability to overcome fear in a sport where the opponent’s objective is to cause physical hurt.

In 2010, Forbes declared squash to be the “healthiest sport of all”. The Forbes study asked fitness experts to rate a selection of sports in cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility, and calories burned and risk of injury. Squash came on top, with a 30 minute session claimed to burn more than 500 calories.

Squash also scored high on muscular and cardiovascular endurance.  Australian Michelle Martin, three time world champion, endorses the sport as the perfect choice to develop hand-eye coordination, a skill which can later be transferred to other sports. She also hails it as the ultimate mind-body game.  As the saying goes, you don’t play squash to get fit, you get fit to play squash.

Other polls and surveys have listed gymnastics, rowing, football / soccer, mixed martial arts and rugby as some of the tougher sports. Tennis itself has other backers (it was listed as high as seventh on the ESPN survey).

Andre Agassi writes in his autobiography how tennis is the loneliest sport, comparing it to solitary confinement. Rafael Nadal, in his book, eulogises the uniqueness of tennis, in that it is not “linear” game but is more “intermittent”. Tennis players need to make sure their bodies are suited for on-off explosiveness, sprinting and braking, over a long period of time. He recalls his trainer comparing tennis players to humming birds, the only bird or animal that combines endless stamina with high speed.

Like all passionate sports debates, this one isn’t going to end with a whimper.

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