Fans, analysts, and other philosophical types continue to debate whether soccer or baseball best represents the human condition--but what about doubles tennis?
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  • Fans, analysts, and other philosophical types continue to debate whether soccer or baseball best represents the human condition—but what about doubles tennis?

In the ebbing days of the World Cup, it was not enough to make the case for or against soccer. That had all been said. An appropriate adieu required putting soccer in its place, not simply as a sport among other sports but as an expression of the human condition.

In that spirit the New York Times‘s David Brooks submitted “Baseball or Soccer?” Which is life more like? Brooks wondered.

“Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities,” Brooks observed, while soccer is played more collectively. “Most of us,” wrote Brooks, “spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer.”

As a moderate conservative, Brooks might wish the evidence told him differently. But he hasn’t blinded himself against reality. “We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.”

Another interesting comparison between soccer and baseball showed up in a Wall Street Journal essay, “The Fault in Our Stars.” The writer, Daniel Akst, discussed a recent study that reported an inconsistent correlation between talent and success by national soccer teams. “Top talent benefited performance only up to a point,” said the study, “after which the marginal benefit of talent decreased and turned negative.” The same phenomenon was found among NBA teams, Akst reported. However, among baseball teams “added talent was never harmful.”

Surely this is because less teamwork is required in baseball. “There’s only one ball,” mavens like to remind us, as NBA teams pile up superstars. But baseball teams on offense never touch the ball. Players simply take turns trying to whale the tar out of it. And so the cautionary note Akst concludes with applies least to baseball: “The findings have implications for more mundane organizations. Prior research has found that teams made up entirely of high-testosterone individuals suffered because members battled for dominance. Managers may want to hire accordingly.”

Times reader Randi Sunshine makes Brooks’s case while protesting it. “I prefer baseball,” said her letter in Thursday’s paper. “It is always summer, and because there are no time restraints, there is always hope that your team can win. There is always hope.”

Hope is one of the nicest things in the world, but I’ve passed enough Cubs fans trudging home in the eighth inning to believe baseball has bottled it. But if life is less like baseball than like soccer, is there another sport life is even more like?

What about hockey (which I might have thought of because Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were all over the Chicago papers Thursday for accepting less money in order to keep the gang together)? Hockey—with all due respect to Ms. Sunshine—replaces eternal hope with sudden death; and superstars like Toews and Kane are much more subsumed in the group enterprise than basketball stars. After all, they’re not even on the ice two-thirds of the game.

But the sport that tests us in the most ways is, I think, tennis. It demands quickness, endurance, strength, creativity, nerve, poise, and courage. And so I nominate doubles tennis as most like life. In addition to these other virtues it also requires teamwork.

What’s more, while doubles tennis players do their damnedest, the world is paying no attention.