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MIT and Tennis: What’s the Deal?

By Yong-yi Zhu


Walking to and from class on most days, I notice one constant: the numerous people playing tennis at all hours of the day. That’s right, whether it be 8:30 in the morning or 11:30 at night, the tennis courts always appear to be inhabited. I used to take this observation blindly, and very much for granted, since many of my friends play tennis and I have always been an avid fan of watching tennis.

As a matter of fact, Wimbledon was very much an obsession of mine. The lawn at the Old England Club, the fast serves of Pete Sampras, and all the traditions involved made the event quite a spectacle. It’s what introduced me to the world of tennis. So sadly, I pay much more attention to Wimbledon than to the U.S. Open; I guess I just grew up watching it more. Back then, what the players did was mystical: they ran around the court hitting everything well and making the sport look so easy. I never got the opportunity to play back home; it was too difficult to arrange for anything.

Then, I came to MIT.

In the very beginning, I was merely looking for something to do. Tennis was the perfect balance between fun and a decent work out. It lacks the masochistic overtones of crew and gets more respect than the “sport-labeled-game” golf. It was also a way to be competitive in a recreational setting. Plus, a lot of people do it here, so it was easy to find someone to play with.

However, the more I played, the more I noticed that many other people played as well. People not only play when it’s sunny and 80 degrees out, but they would indulge in the sport while the wind blew and the rain fell. In fact, when the weather is nice out, it becomes rather difficult to find an open court to play on. Despite MIT having over ten outdoor tennis courts, they will fill up in the blink of an eye if the weather permits. In the winter, it’s almost impossible to find free time at the tennis bubble; only during early afternoons and late evenings do you barely even have a chance.

So, I wondered, is this merely a college thing? College culture is quite unique in many ways. I called my friends at other universities. It appears that nobody has this kind of enthusiasm for tennis as we do. One friend even mentioned about how her school’s tennis courts are being turned into a parking lot. This would be totally unacceptable at MIT.

Well, I thought to myself, this must be MIT specific culture, which intrigued me greatly. How is it that a group of MIT students in particular is addicted to tennis? Could it be their academic background? Could it be their cultural background?

I was talking to some tennis players the other day and this first thing they said was that of course people are going to play tennis when you bring a bunch of Asians together. This seemed like somewhat faulty logic, since I observe people of all races playing at all hours of the day. One thing is for sure, this shows that there are side effects to having a school like this. Maybe tennis is just a rather visible area where MIT students concentrate their time. Other things that people do may not be as visible. Whatever the occasion, we will find a way to put our spin on things.

I didn’t ever want to admit that our school was unique, but the evidence is here, even in something as subtle as tennis. I guess I still don’t know what exactly it is about MIT and tennis, but if you figure it out, please let me know.