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Billie Jean King helping Bobby Riggs/

‘Winning ugly’ in Washington

Tennis explains why Republicans usually beat Democrats

Jeffrey Denny

Democrats often lose out because Republicans play to win, and they play rough. — Maureen Dowd, New York Times, Dec. 9, 2017

I’m a lifelong, passionate, near-daily tennis player. “Advanced hacker” might best describe my level of play. And in my experience, over the years I’ve noticed two distinct kinds of tennis hackers that might represent the difference between being a Republican and a Democrat in 21st-century Washington.

Tennis Hacker Type I

These hackers never really invested much in learning how to hit the ball correctly, intentionally and perhaps gracefully, with command of various strokes and shots — topspin, slice, flat, half-volleys, approach — as well as shot choice and placement.

To the Type I, tennis is a game, games are played exclusively to win, and a good day is when you beat someone, however you beat that person. Winning is all that matters, so you win any way possible.

Mind games? Fair game. Bad calls? Your word against mine, and if my bad calls mess with your head, so much the better. Weird dead-bird slices, drop shots, pats and pushes, bunts and unintentional winners? Why not? If it works, if it makes a superior player crazy, purple with rage and so rigid with frustration that he fluffs the match, excellent.

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For the Type I hacker, former tennis pro now ESPN tennis commentator and coach Brad Gilbert, infamous author of “Winning Ugly,” might be a patron saint.

Except that Gilbert had a nice game, he’s coached the beautiful games of world champions Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori and Sam Querry, and to my knowledge he never advised hitting a forehand like a crab waving a crab pick.

The Type I player’s strokes in fact look nothing like what tennis pros do or teach. More like they’re being attacked by bees while afflicted with Vitus’s Dance complete with the rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements. It’s fascinating to watch but you need to look away lest you lose the coordination even to walk.

When you get on the court with a Type I, he (or she) wants to warm up for just a minute — hit a couple of balls maybe — and then start the game. The game is all. Grooving ground strokes and net volleys is a waste of time.

Once I was cornered into playing a Type I for a community pool/tennis club tourney. His backhand looked like a bloated dinner guest pushing away his plate. Knowing I was a better player, he was even more determined to beat me for the ego snack and perhaps to reinvigorate his marital lovemaking. I was desperate to avoid giving this [vile expletive] the pleasure of winning, which made me almost lose.

Type I doesn’t understand that winning ugly for a $10 club trophy is pathetic. He thinks losers who don’t care about the $10 trophy are pathetic.

Like Ms. Dowd said about Republicans, Type I tennis hackers play to win, and they play rough.

Tennis Hacker Type II

These folks love the gorgeous art of tennis.

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Type II hackers will never hit with the beauty and grace of Roger Federer, but they’d love to. (As Browning said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”)

Type IIs love the thrill in moving into the perfect position to address the ball … the delicious sound and feel of connecting with and hitting the ball well … and mastering a stroke to the point that without thinking you can hit the ball 20 times to the same spot inches from the baseline, exactly as intended. You don’t look up to see where the ball landed, the teaching pros stress, because you should already know.

These hackers play zen tennis — ichigyo-zammai — fully concentrating on the single act, being fully present and mesmerized in the moment. The doing, not the winning, is the goal.

Type IIs love to learn and grow in the game. They’re obsessed with hitting the ball the right way. They see every failing as a lesson to do better. They hate the feeling of hitting the ball wrong even if it somehow lands in the court for a winner. They raise a hand to recognize and apologize for accidental winners.

Type IIs love to rally — just hitting balls, as hard and skillfully and as many as possible. Rallying lets you hit more balls, get a great workout, and groove your strokes.

In a match, Type II players prefer other Type II players who also don’t care about winning.

Type IIs just want to have a great game, with good points and smart play. If they win, sure, great! But that’s almost beside the point.

In fact, losing well, especially having the chance to get on the court with a superior player and getting crushed, is far more satisfying and edifying than winning ugly.

Suffice that the Type I tennis hacker who only cares about winning can often beat the Type II tennis hacker who cares more about the game and playing well.

This is why I don’t play club tennis where Type I players prowl, and instead cling to my like-minded Type II tennis circle.


When it comes to governing the nation, Republicans are the Type I tennis players.

Politics is a game, you’re in it to win it, and they’ll do whatever necessary — even win ugly — and to the victors go the spoils.

Republicans despise government, so they’re the least likely to treat governing with respect. That helps to explain why the GOP has been the first to:

· Shut down government

· Refuse to hold confirmation hearings for a president’s Supreme Court nominee entirely for partisan political reasons

· Consistently seek to suppress voting among people who won’t vote for them

· Attempt a massive repeal of healthcare law, disrupting the system, boosting premiums and throwing people out of coverage, without public hearing, debate and discussion

· Forge a massive tax bill behind closed doors under pressure from wealthy donors and rush it into law also without public hearings, leaving companies, families and tax accountants scrambling during the holidays to understand its impact and what to do

· Support an alleged child molester just to keep a Senate seat

· Ignore the outrageous behavior of what even they worry is a patently unfit, damaging and embarrassing president, accepting and manipulating him as a useful idiot to advance the party and policies

· Attack a special prosecutor for doing his job and seek to distract and divert public attention away from the president

Non-partisan political scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have captured the GOP’s hacker Type I approach to politics and the impact:

“[O]ver the past decade it has become clear that it is the Republican Party — as an institution, as a movement, as a collection of politicians — that has done unique, extensive and possibly irreparable damage to the American political system.

“First, beginning in the 1990s, the Republicans strategically demonized Congress and government more broadly and flouted the norms of lawmaking, fueling a significant decline of trust in government that began well before the financial collapse in 2008, though it has sped up since.

“While many argued that the problem was that [President] Obama failed to schmooze enough with Republicans in Congress, we saw a deliberate Republican strategy to oppose all of his initiatives and frame his attempts to compromise as weak or inauthentic.

“The Senate under the majority leader Mitch McConnell weaponized the filibuster to obstruct legislation, block judges and upend the policy process.

“And with the advent of social media, we saw the emergence of a radical ‘alt-right’ media ecosystem able to create its own ‘facts’ and build an audience around hostility to the establishment, anti-immigration sentiment and racial resentment. Nothing even close to comparable exists on the left.”

See the Dec. 2, 2017 Mann-Ornstein piece here:

Sadly, Democrats are the Type II tennis hackers. They care about the game. They believe in governing.

Poor saps. To them, politics is the art of the possible, the means to harness the democratic system to call on our better angels to make the most progress for the most people.

How you win politically matters. Principles matter. Process matters. Precedent matters. E pluribus unum matters. The republic matters.

That’s why Democrats lose. They care.

My question: How do Type II hackers who care about the game beat the Type I hackers who just want to win?

To me, that’s the big question for the 2018 midterms and 2020 elections.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer

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