The A to Z of tennis

This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s new series on the joy of tennis


Alcaraz The future of men’s tennis, with a forehand like a Switchblade missile. Carlos Alcaraz is aged 19, ranked in the top 10, and beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on successive days in May. Born in Murcia, southern Spain, he is the least nervous teenager who didn’t go to Eton you will ever encounter. Under official ATP Tour rules, each newspaper is only allowed one “Escape from Alcaraz” headline per Grand Slam. 


Boris Becker It doesn’t matter how many titles you win as a teenager, you might still end up in the wrong kind of court, especially if you conceal £2.5mn during bankruptcy proceedings. “I accept you were in chaos,” the judge told Becker, now 54, in April, but “you have shown no remorse [or] humility”. The three-time Wimbledon champion was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, of which he is likely to serve half. A shame for those who enjoyed watching him on the BBC’s coverage. 


Coaching After Wimbledon, the men’s tour will trial allowing coaching during matches. But if the pros really want some know-it-all on the sidelines telling them not to hit the ball wide, they can go to any tennis club any day of the week. Careful what you wish for.


Drop shot The one shot that will reliably make you look a genius — or an idiot. There is no middle ground. For amateurs, see also forehand smash.


Equality Prize money is equal at major tournaments. At Wimbledon, men and women both receive £50,000 for making the first round, and £2mn for winning the title. But the playing field is still far from level. Sponsorship is uneven and, at some of this year’s events, women’s matches were scheduled outside prime time and therefore played in almost empty stadiums. And yes, women don’t play five sets, which is part of the reason why their matches have more upsets.


Federer The face who inspired a thousand male authors to write quasi-erotic essays. Roger Federer has taken a long knee-injury break since Wimbledon last year. He turns 41 in August. He has two sets of twins. And yet! The Swiss player is aiming for a comeback, possibly at the Laver Cup in September. If the serve works, if the movement is there . . . watching him will again be, for some, a “religious experience” (copyright David Foster Wallace)


Grass The perfect surface for tennis, if you don’t mind not playing on it most of the year and then watching it wear away faster than Primark underwear. No, really, it’s good. 


Hips Until recently believed to be essential for top-level tennis. Now maybe not, given that Andy Murray has managed a sterling return from hip-resurfacing surgery. 


Iga Świątek She is the future of women’s tennis, with more hot streaks than barbecued bacon. The relentlessly athletic Pole — who relaxes by building Lego — is achieving Serena-esque dominance. Aged 21, she’d have had an intriguing rivalry with Ash Barty, had the Australian not retired in March.


Junk balls Those terrible looping shots that your opponent hits and you feel that you should hit for winners? Those are “junk balls”, and missing them is possibly the most annoying thing in tennis (except when people cheer double-faults). The secret, according to tennis coach Karue Sell, is not to try to hit a winner. Your opponent will be back in position anyway. Be patient.


Knock-up Why is it so much easier to hit nice shots in a knock-up (the warm-up session) than in an actual match?


Line calls Tip for amateur tennis players: the quickest way to improve your game is just to call more of your opponent’s shots out. Sadly, this is also the quickest way to lose your opponents. 


Match point A player can think it’s all over, but it isn’t. Novak Djokovic has won at least seven titles after facing match points at some stage during the tournament. It helps if a spectator shouts out just as your opponent is serving (as they did in the 2019 Wimbledon final). 


Nadal Half-machine, half-medical miracle, Rafael Nadal has been battling pain for years. Is it finally over? Will the sport ever see anyone pick their wedged shorts with such style again?


Over-rule When an umpire reverses a call by a line judge, aka how umpires prove they’re awake. 


Passing shots Things of beauty that have more or less killed off serve-and-volley tactics.


Queue Yes, you could get some fancy corporate ticket to Wimbledon. But the true way to experience the world’s greatest tennis tournament is to wake up insultingly early, join the line of surprisingly chirpy people outside, and nab a ground pass for £27. 


Retirement You can do it when you’re 25 and ranked world number one (Ash Barty). You can decline to do it when you’re 40 and no longer world number one (Roger Federer). Each player will weigh up the physical and mental toll, the money and the opportunities outside the game. Maybe it’s the regimented schedule of the tour that gets to them. As John McEnroe wrote about Björn Borg, who first retired at 26, “for the five years he won Wimbledon, he’d stay at the same hotel, practise at the same time and place — all day. Every day, he’d eat the same meals, get a massage at the same time.”


Serena The greatest women’s player of all time is, at 40, preparing for life after the sport, notably joining an unsuccessful bid to buy Chelsea FC and trying to spread access to (sigh) Bitcoin. But she is back and no one will relish facing her, even if she is the world number 1,204.


Temper We’re obviously all supposed to tut disapprovingly when players lose their rag on court. Secretly, there is a joy to watching rich pros yell at the clouds, especially since the introduction of Hawk-Eye means they can barely moan about line calls any more. This joy evaporates when it gets truly serious (see: Zverev). 


Ukraine Should Wimbledon really have banned Russian and Belarusian players, like Daniil Medvedev and Victória Azárenka? The move, in a sport where players generally compete as individuals, didn’t have too many supporters. Australian player John Millman fumed that Wimbledon would have had more impact by donating its entire profits to aid instead. But there’s no doubt how affected Ukrainian players, such as Elina Svitolina, have been by the refusal of Russian players to condemn the war. Sergiy Stakhovsky, a retired pro who once knocked Federer out of Wimbledon, is among those who have taken up arms for their country.


Vaccination Pretty much the only thing that stood between Novak Djokovic and this year’s Australian Open title. Oops.


Wind In club tennis, usually to blame for everything, even when it’s not blowing. 


It turns out that nothing tennis-related begins with an X.


Youth Not necessarily a disadvantage. Ask Emma Raducanu. 


Zverev The most hard-to-like player on the pro tour? Alexander Zverev has been accused of domestic abuse by a former girlfriend (he denies it, and has sued in Germany a journalist and publisher who reported the claims). At this year’s Mexican Open he hit the umpire’s chair with his racket and yelled a few F-words. The ATP still allowed him to play in the next tournament, so he’ll surely have learnt his lesson.

Any entries to add to our tennis lexicon? Tell us in the comments

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