In The Zone

Arthur Ashe? Anonymous?

twilight11Dear Quote Investigator: While engaging in a difficult physical or mental task one sometimes achieves a state of sublime concentration that enables remarkable performance. Athletes employ the following phrase to describe this ideal status:

In The Zone

Would you please explore the origin of this expression?

Quote Investigator: During 1973 and 1974 the top tennis player Arthur Ashe kept an audio diary, and in 1975 he published “Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion” primarily based on his daily recordings. The earliest evidence of the phrase located by QI appeared in a diary entry dated February 22, 1974 in which he discussed a match with another prominent player named Bjorn Borg. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I thought I was playing unconscious, but Borg beat me 6-4, 7-6 tonight, and he is in what we call the zone. (That comes originally from “twilight zone” and translates, more or less, into “another world.”) The kid has no concept of what he is doing out there—he is just swinging away and the balls are dropping in. He has no respect for anybody. Hell, he should win the whole tournament.

The award-winning original television series “The Twilight Zone” ran from 1959 to 1964 and featured supernatural and science-fictional plot elements. Thus, the figurative underpinnings of “in the zone” suggested magical or mystical superhuman powers acquired for a temporary period.

Ashe was the central locus for the popularization of the phrase. It was possible that the saying emerged from a group discussion in which Ashe participated; hence, he used the word “we” in the passage above. Alternatively, it was crafted by an unknown person, and Ashe quickly learned about its meaning and its connection to the television series.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1975 “The Dallas Morning News” wrote about another tennis match between Ashe and Bjorn Borg. Ashe employed the phrase with otherworldly connotations while complimenting his opponent: 2

Borg can play, as Ashe says, in “the zone,” that state of playing as if in another world, when everything goes in.

In July 1975 Ashe triumphed over Jimmy Connors to become the Wimbledon champion, and he discussed his experiences in an addendum to “Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion”. Interestingly, the locution Ashe used in the following excerpt differed from the popular modern phrase: 3

We have an expression among the players: “going through the zone.” It comes from the old Twilight Zone TV show and, roughly translated, it means playing out of sight, out of this world. The trouble is, most times when you go through the zone it is in Fort Worth or Bologna, and who knows? It suddenly occurred to me that I had picked the Wimbledon weeks to go through the zone. I was totally relaxed in the finals

In March 1976 an article from the United Press International news service praised the recent feats of tennis star Evonne Goolagong who had played a week without dropping a set, and who won her final match decisively: 4

On the tour, they call that kind of performance playing “in the zone,” after the long-running, science fiction TV series, “Twilight Zone.”

Over time the phrase radiated into a multiplicity of athletic and non-athletic domains. In 1978 a columnist lauded the peak performance of a Pennsylvanian high school basketball team called the “Little Lady Lions”: 5

For eight minutes yesterday afternoon the Little Lady Lions were “in the zone.” It didn’t last the entire game. In fact, before the clock mercifully ticked its last, the play got downright sloppy. But for a while, at least, the State High team was perfection.

In 1979 a sports journalist in Trenton, New Jersey referred to Ashe while elucidating the phrase for readers and applying it to the “Philadelphia 76ers” professional basketball team: 6

Arthur Ashe once described a period of playing almost perfect tennis as being “in the zone,” a time when every shot was hit in the center of his racket, every bounce went the right way and the level of his game took on an almost mystical aura.

For the past two weeks, the Sixers have been “in the zone”, playing with the enthusiasm of youth and the expertise of veterans.

In 1982 the magazine “World Tennis” published an article titled “In ‘The Zone'” by Mary Carillo which began as follows: 7

Hey, everybody, remember how we used to watch “The Twilight Zone” on television every week? It was a fascinating, mysterious and scary show because inexplicably and without warning something strange would happen to unsuspecting people. For a time they were not in control of their lives. It made for great theatre so we tuned in, with a shudder and a smile. . .

The piece namechecked Ashe, and expounded on the phrase:

There is a zone spoken of in tennis. According to Arthur Ashe, “It got its name from the TV show, and it translates, more or less, into ‘another world.'” This zone is fascinating and mysterious too, and though it is not scary it is certainly tantalizing, elusive, ephemeral. When a player is “in the zone” he is in total control of his game. He can play to his fullest capacity, reach heights that he had only dreamed about before. . .

In conclusion, the expression “in the zone” was circulating among professional tennis players by 1974. Arthur Ashe popularized it and explained its linkage to “The Twilight Zone”. He may also have participated in its coinage.

Image Notes: Reduced-size, low-resolution image of DVD-set cover for “The Twilight Zone”. Arthur Ashe at the 1975 World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. Source: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo Item number 927-7839, Author: Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.

(Great thanks to Wilson Gray whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Gray pointed out the connection to “The Twilight Zone”. Great thanks to the kind librarian at the John C. Hitt Library of the University of Central Florida who accessed the 1982 citation. Additional thanks to the mailing-list discussants Jesse Sheidlower, George Thompson, Joel Berson, and Bill Mullins who found the May 1975 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1976 (1975 Copyright), Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion by Arthur Ashe with Frank Deford, Chapter 16: Playing Europe and the Zone, Diary Entry for February 22, 1974, Quote Page 201, Ballantine Books, New York. (Originally published in 1975; verified with scans of 1976 paperback edition)
  2. 1975 May 11, Dallas Morning News, Ashe–Thoughts of a Winner . . . Loser, Quote Page B1, Column 4, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1976 (1975 Copyright), Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion by Arthur Ashe with Frank Deford, (Unnumbered Chapter): How I Beat Connors at Wimbledon, (Not a Dated Diary Entry), Quote Page 306, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans of 1976 paperback edition)
  4. 1976 March 29, The Port Arthur News, Connors, Goolagong prevail (UPI News Service), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Port Arthur, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1978 December 12, The Centre Daily Times, First Class Notes: 8 Minutes of Near Perfection by Dennis Gildes, Quote Page 18, Column 6, State College, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1979 December 9, Trenton Evening Times, 76ers play to perfection in setting Suns down by Mark Blaudschun (Staff Writer), Quote Page C5, Column 4, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1982 February, World Tennis, Volume 29, Number 9, In ‘The Zone’ by Mary Carillo, Start Page 48, Quote Page 48, CBS Publications, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to John C. Hitt Library of the University of Central Florida)