It's worth reading (or re-reading) this 2006 David Foster Wallace article on Roger Federer in light of today's Wimbeldon final. As we've talked about Deleuze and sport previously (here, here, and here), I just want to make a short note here to say that Deleuze and Guattari's treatment of art in What is Philosophy? doesn't work with sports and to suggest what we need to do to supplement their account to handle sport. First, the video, then below the break, the analysis. (Do yourself a favor and mute the sound. The commentary here is more stupid even than usual.)
Deleuze and Guattari say of art that it is a mode of thought, like philosophy and science, but that it thinks in "percepts and affects" rather than in concepts or functions, the respective media of philosophy and science. Furthermore, art requires material that will preserve the work of art; by means of the material, art "extracts" a bloc of sensation (percepts and affects). Without getting into the details, it's the lack of a preserving material that makes sport a bad fit under the concept of art Deleuze and Guattari lay out.
But other elements do fit.
Using the terms of Difference and Repetition, we could take Wallace's description of the Idea of a tennis shot (the differential relations and singularities that progressively determine the elements of spin, pace, angle, and so on):
By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you. This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.
I think we can see each shot is an actualization of this virtual Idea, the resolution of this problematic field, or integration of this differential field. Insofar as they are resolutions, they do not exhaust the problem ("how should tennis be played?") even if each solution changes the field for the future ("how can I play now that Federer has played?") and changes the sense of the past ("who are the greats, what is their relation to Federer?").
To come back to What is Philosophy? and the modes of thought, we could also talk about the syntax and grammar of tennis, the composition of shots that make up a point, as the mode of thought of tennis. Tennis players don't think in terms of percepts and affects, they think in terms of shots, of moving the opponent around the court to set him or her up for the winner. (Similarly, basketball players think terms of "moves," baseball pitchers think in terms of "pitch sequence," and so on). Wallace again lets us see this aspect of the game:
... Federer’s intelligence ... often manifests as angle. Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision ... these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce. And understanding how and why Federer is able to move other world-class athletes around this way requires ... a technical understanding of the modern power-baseline game.
There's quite a bit more to be said on what a Deleuzean or Deleuzoguattarian take on sport would be (particularly on the notion of creativity, as Jeff Bell writes about here), but let's leave this as today's contribution: 1) athletes think, but in the grammatical elements and syntactic rules of their sport, rather than in percepts, affects, concepts, or functions; 2) athletic movements are actualizations of the virtual Idea, or integrations of the differential field, or solutions of the problematic field of their sport.