A couple of years ago, an article about the French Open carried this headline: The Top Five Players Who Stepped Up to the Plate at Roland Garros, But Struck Out. The use of a baseball metaphor to talk about just about anything is ridiculously common in the United States. Football metaphors are also very common, and other sports metaphors are also frequently used.
I dislike the idea of constantly using sports metaphors to describe everything from political processes to the weather. Such overuse mirrors an obsessive preoccupation with sports, a misconception that the entire population can relate to sports, and an obvious lack of language skills.
But what I especially dislike is the use of sports metaphors to describe tennis. I have two main objections. First, it’s very poor metaphor construction, though what can you expect form a culture that likes to say “you’re comparing apples with oranges”? Comparing apples with (remember, we compare “with,” not “to”) oranges is really lazy metaphor construction, since they’re both edible fruits, and even approximately the same size.
I’m reminded of the hilarious book Titters, which contains the fake endorsement: Makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte! Only that, of course, was an example of making fun of stupid metaphors.
My other objection is more important: Constantly using other sports to describe tennis turns tennis into the stepchild that tennis fans know so well. If you watch a match on television, you’ll hear “near the finish line” (running), “off the tee” (golf), “counter-puncher” (boxing), “swing and a miss” (baseball), “and de-fense” (football, where it exists, unfortunately, because of cheering considerations). If you’re watching the ATP, you’ll hear commentators begin sentences with “If he were a batter” or “If he were a boxer”
If you tune into a football, basketball or baseball game, you’re not going to hear commentators use metaphors involving volleying, serving, slicing, or playing a love game. No one will say “Game, set match.”
Language reflects culture, but it also directs it. Just as commentators calling female players “women” and not “girls” will eventually get people to actually see them as women, leaving other sports out of tennis language will direct people to see tennis as a “legitimate” athletic entity, and not the stepchild of sports.