Tennis is not a sport one would generally consider dangerous. You hit a ball over a net and never have to make any physical contact with another competitor apart from shaking your opponents hand. So when I heard of a particular tennis match over 400 years ago which directly resulted in the death of a competitor my ears immediately pricked up.
The incident was written by the philosopher Montaigne in his essay, ‘That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’. It was actually Montaigne’s younger brother who died in this most peculiar fashion and the event (understandably) tormented Montaigne. So much so that he would go on to have a very real fear of death, realising it is never too far away as evidenced by his brother’s untimely death. In his book Montaigne writes……
“A brother of mine, called Captain Saint Martin, a man of three and twenty years of age, who had already given a good testimony of his worth and forward valour, playing at tennis received a blow with a ball that hit him a little above the right ear. Without appearance of any contusion, bruise or hurt and never resting upon it, died within six hours after of an apoplexy, which the blow of the ball caused him. These so frequent and ordinary examples, happening and being still before our eyes, how is it possible for man to forgo or forget the remembrance of death? And why should it not continually seem unto us, that she is still ready at hand to take us by the throat?”
As seen above his brother died from a brain haemorrhage directly caused by the impact of the ball. The death, which haunted Montaigne for many years, helped spur him into a life of philosophy and the idea of death was something he weighed heavily into. The incident is no doubt a rare one. I looked for other reported deaths in tennis and found only one which was not directly caused by a tennis ball (an umpire fell backwards after getting hit by the ball and hit his head on the hard surface- it was the blow from the fall and not the ball itself which caused his death). Of course death in other sports is more common. In a country rugby league game 28 year old Grant Cook tragically died from the injuries received from a tack. Phil Hughes, an Australian cricketer passed away after getting his head hit with a bouncer (a cricket ball is a LOT harder than a tennis ball however), and even more recently a paralympian bike rider, Bahman Golbarnezhad died after crashing his bike. As tragic as all these events are, there are inherent risks involved with these sports and although rare, there are multiple anecdotes of tragedies in particular sports. Tennis on the other hand, not so much. That’s what makes this case even more fascinating. So next time you attempt that forehand up the line, spare a thought for Captain Martin who was the first (and hopefully last) person to die whilst playing tennis.