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18 February 2023updated 13 Jul 2023 3:18pm

I just might have been a top tennis player but my teenage body had other ideas

When after two years of lessons I still lost to my brother I gave up – not recognising the impact puberty had played.

By Pippa Bailey

When I was in junior school I spent Friday nights sleeping over at my friend G—’s house, where we did things I wasn’t allowed to at home, such as watching Big Brother. We slept on the sofa bed in the living room, G— always on the side nearest the door. I once asked her why and she said it was so she could escape in a fire; never mind me. Having survived the night, we would don our whites and trot off to our tennis lesson, which G— had signed us up for, much to my dismay.

For two years we went to see Cliff every Saturday morning, and he entreated us to draw rainbows with our rackets to get our stroke right, and threatened that if we didn’t hit the ball we’d have to accompany him to the cinema that evening (writing this now, it occurs to me how inappropriate this joke was). Under his enthusiastic tutelage, I made… minimal progress.

The fruitlessness of my efforts became clear on a trip to a holiday rental on the border between England and Wales, which just happened to have a tennis court. My brother, two years younger than me, who had never before played, was immediately better than me. All my hours of practice were no match for his natural ability – his complete awareness of where his body was in space, and how to direct it with precision to make the ball do his bidding – and so, perhaps wrongly, I gave up.

[See also: Why Wimbledon is made for radio]

I thought of my ill-fated tennis career recently as I read Lauren Fleshman’s memoir about being a female athlete, Good for a Girl: My Life Running in a Man’s World. According to one study, girls in the US drop out of sports by age 14 at twice the rate of boys; among the reasons Fleshman lists: safety, access, quality, social stigma, lack of role models – and puberty. This last had never occurred to me; I had never thought about the age at which I quit tennis. But, of course, at the very time boys are growing in height and muscle mass, improving their performance, girls are dealing with breasts and blood. Fleshman recalls topping the list of the fastest mile every week, until, out of nowhere, someone else’s name was above hers: a boy. “Movement for girls now feels different than it does for their male peers they used to run alongside,” Fleshman writes. “Is movement something they will leave behind along with their child body?”

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I never had the genetic predisposition, the mental grit or simply the love for sport that Fleshman clearly has. Nor can I blame my lack of athletic prowess on my brother. But Good for a Girl made me think afresh about the awkwardness of my teenage body, how it grew and twisted in ways that I could not control – and how that sense of alienation continued to shape who I became long after it left me.

A scuffle has broken out in the New Statesman letters pages in recent weeks about the use of the phrase “begs the question”. Technically/historically speaking – delete as appropriate – to beg the question is to engage in a circular argument, where the conclusion is assumed in the premise; it comes from the Latin petitio principii, which literally means “laying claim to a principle”. An example from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: when Martha argues that she isn’t a witch and doesn’t know what a witch is, Hathorne asks: “How do you know, then, that you are not a witch?” “If I were, I would know it,” Martha answers. But “begs the question” is now more commonly used to mean the rather simpler “raise the question” – which some NS readers consider improper usage, and others a natural and acceptable instance of language evolving.

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It reminded me of the recent furore when the Financial Times announced it has amended its style guide to say it will now treat the word “data” as singular rather than plural. Data is, strictly speaking, a plural – in the original Latin, the singular is datum – but to many, its use as plural sounds stilted and eccentric. Agenda is also a plural, the singular being agendum, but no one on Twitter was crying that the liberal agendum is destroying the English language.

The United Kingdom has no academy of language, as exists elsewhere in Europe, to decide what is correct and incorrect. Oxford Dictionaries – arguably the next best thing – says that while “to some traditionalists” the original use of begs the question is “still the only correct meaning”, the more general use “is by far the commonest use today and is the usual one in modern standard English”. I won’t argue with that. If you wish to, please write to letters@newstatesman.co.uk.

[See also: The unbreakable spirit of Andy Murray]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon