I don’t necessarily like tennis. While I may watch one of the Williams sisters destroy what amounts to inferior competition or a five-hour Rodick-Agassi match, I would not consider myself a tennis fan. I would much prefer the NBA, NFL, or the World Series of Poker to tennis any day.
Worse than my lukewarm reaction toward tennis are my disdainful feelings toward tennis video games. They just don’t work as well as other sports video games. From the classic arcade version (you remember the little red game you sat down to play) to the various tennis platform options, I have never thought much of the genre—bad graphics, boring, and often too hard.
You may wonder what then brought me to review Top Spin. The prospect of a free game and the excuse of needing to finally buy an Xbox is what brought me and Top Spin together. While not a relationship made in heaven, Top Spin is the best tennis game on the market.
The strength of the game lies with its extensive options, from players and venues, to shot selection and overall experience. Top Spin offers its players the opportunity to play as some of the world’s best tennis stars (minus Venus and Serena Williams, Andre Agassi, and Andy Rodick ). Yet, Hingis, Sampras, Lyton Hewitt, and James Blake all find their way into Top Spin, providing for a certain amount of excitement. While the player graphics are iffy at times, the likeness of players and the venues adds to the power and enjoyment of this constructed virtual reality.
Top Spin, thus, offers players the opportunity to play on the biggest and smallest stages. From regular tour events to the grand slams, Top Spin offers it players the chance to test their skills on all surfaces. Similar to virtual golf, which transports players to courses all over the world, there is something exciting about playing on the clay of Paris or the grass of a fake Wimbledon.
Whereas tennis games of past limited shot selection to basic ground strokes, Top Spin offers an arsenal of weapons, making even the weakest player a potentially dangerous shot maker. The game has it all: top spin, slice, flat, drop shots, lobs, between the legs, volley, and the always-fun risk shots. Top Spin looks nothing like past video incarnations.
The strength of the games lies with the diversity of playing options. As with virtually every other sports game, you have the ability to choose between practice, exhibition matches, and a career. The career option makes the game worth playing as it takes you beyond purely playing tennis. Allowing you to pick between a “real” player and constructing your own (some virtual genetic engineering), the career mode provides you with a holistic experience. Beyond tournament play, you spend on the practice court, at the airport (flying around the globe to play), at the offices of various sponsors (where you compete for commercials and endorsements), sports shops, salons (image is everything), and of course at your coach’s house. The only thing missing seemed to be dinner. The task of moving up the world rankings, and gaining access to locked settings, requires more than domination on the court, but savvy and business sense off the court as well.
As the career option reflects the strength of the game, it also represents one of its most disturbing elements. Upon “sculpting your player”, you are asked to pick from various strands of DNA. Each DNA sample leads to not only a particular gender and level of athleticism, but also a racial category. Picking what appeared to be a “darker DNA sample,” I ended up with a very dark, almost subhuman, black male that looked more like a minstrel or C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man than any black tennis player (person) I have ever seen. Worse yet, my extensive effort to make him more human (real) continuously failed with each change making him look more and more clownish. The inability of sport games to transcend grotesque images and stereotypes of people of color persist, rendering virtual sports gaming as a perpetual project of minstrelsy and racialized distortion.
Equally troubling is the position of women within Top Spin. Unlike other sports games and America’s sports pages, Top Spin doesn’t completely erase women from its sports world. Yet, despite their presence, women are reduced to eye-candy and sexual objects. Their presence is not to validate women’s tennis or offer players the opportunity to play as women, but to fulfill male fantasies as sexualized commodities. Not surprisingly, Anna Kournakova, Ashley Hakerold, Daniella Hantuchobva, and Barbara Schett, all of who recently appeared on ESPN’s “Who’s Hot List”, appear within the game. Neither this pandering to the sexual libido of male game enthusiasts, with revealing tennis outfits, nor the anatomical impossibility (which we could compare to black men in games) of Kournakova, who appears to have a 24-inch waist and 36dd breasts, are surprising, given the vision of women within both video games and sports. Yet again, this fact demonstrates the sexualized peripheral presence of women within both sports video games and the world of sports. This unfortunate dimension is especially true given that the women included in the game are better known for their bodies and sexuality than their tennis prowess.
Not without its flaws, many of which resemble the problems of the sports gaming industry, Top Spin offers players a powerful entry into the world of tennis. Beyond the ground strokes and aces, the game allows you to become a virtual tennis professional, enduring the struggles of travel, financial uncertainty, and anonymity. Moving beyond Pong and tennis games of past, the options and realism have made me reconsider my ambivalent disdain for tennis and virtual tennis.