When Classical Music Takes Center Court

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After spotting Alec Baldwin, host of the New York Philharmonic This Week on WQXR, in the audience at the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows this week, it made me wonder about the connection between classical music and tennis.

Is it just a coincidence that Benjamin Britten was not only particularly fond of the sport but also remorselessly competitive? How was it that George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg came to enjoy a fiercely-fought tennis match each week? Why was Sergei Prokofiev interested in the game? And how in the world did Henry VIII find time for both writing music and playing what was known in his day as “real tennis?”

Is there something about the game of tennis that makes it especially interesting and challenging for the classical music mind?

I vividly recall a fascinating conversation I once had with violinist Itzhak Perlman in which I learned that he was a tennis fan. He had watched the very Jimmy Connors/ John McEnroe match that I had seen the night before. Both Connors and McEnroe were long retired, and they were having a good time entertaining the crowd. But, Maestro Perlman and I agreed that the competitive spirit that had made both Connors and McEnroe champions in their day could not be denied…the same sort of spirit, I would dare say, that played a key role in helping Perlman achieve virtuoso status in the world of classical music.

Though I’ve never spoken with pianist Emmanuel Ax about his love of tennis, I’ve seen him at the Open several times. In fact, I remember seeing him strategically positioned in the crowd during one of Andre Agassi’s final, heart-wrenching matches. I don’t know which I enjoyed more – watching Agassi play or watching Ax as he felt every moment along with the two men on Center Court.

Classical music fans were recently fascinated to learn via an interview with tennis enthusiast and Philadelphia Orchestra conductor designate, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, that tennis champion Raphael Nadal’s grandfather is a retired conductor. Do you suppose that Rafa (right) listens to Beethoven or Bach or Mozart when he puts on his headphones and focuses in on closing out the match?

Those of us who enjoy both tennis and classical music appreciate the lifelong learning aspect of each. Alec Baldwin told WQXR, “I love tennis because it’s a sport you can play all your life…in my case, not very well.” Truth be told, there’s always something more to learn about both classical and tennis. And Alec Baldwin really shouldn’t feel bad about his game because there’s always room for improvement.

Maybe it’s just speculation on my part, but I think that classical music and tennis have more in common than meets the eye. Think of Roger Federer, the great Swiss player who holds 16 Grand Slam titles and claimed the number-one position in men’s tennis for a record 237 consecutive weeks. Artistry and technique have as much to do with his success as athleticism. Wouldn’t you agree?