Arthur Ashe? Anonymous?
Dear 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.
- 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) ↩