Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tennis Star

We play competitive tennis because we love the game so much. Right? We certainly love to win and hate to lose, but lose we must. Every day, everywhere, the game of tennis is a losing proposition for fifty percent of its participants. Half of all those playing must, by definition, come in second which, in tennis, means nothing. Why is it so hard to be in the losing half?

My coach once told me, after another frustrating defeat, that you learn more from your losses than you do from your wins. You betcha. You learn how much you STILL hate to lose. It’s even worse when you’ve been playing particularly well because then you believe that, despite all rational indicators, you are on the brink of becoming a paid professional. Lucrative endorsements will most likely follow. It’s such a small mental leap from adequate mid-level club player to the big time. Other than golfers and possibly aspiring musicians, I don’t think any group is as ill-equipped, in terms of ego, as tennis players.

We hit a shot that makes us happy and we think own it forever more. We beat someone who used to beat us and we’re on the way. We tell the ball where to go and it listens - we’re halfway there. We win a little tournament and we’re hooked. Our rating gets moved up and it’s all over. Our ego is out of control. We bask in compliments about our game. It is so much fun to be good - playing is all we want to do. Winning is addictive and when we are winning we believe we have crossed over a line to somewhere else, somewhere better. Our game is now great and will only improve.

Playing tennis has appeal because it’s got a concrete result, unlike so much else in life. The ball is either in or out, although that can be a debatable point. The serve is good or it isn’t. The momentum can, and often does, change on a dime but in the end, the result can be quantified. So much of what we do with our lives and our time is abstract and subjective. We don’t know whether we’re winning or losing. Often, we don’t even know what want. We are very clear about what we want in tennis. WE WANT TO WIN.

There is such a buzz after a good win, especially a hard fought and difficult victory. You can’t help but feel a little superior - after all, you’re better than the other guys. You revel in the moment and go over the points with your partner. You buy your opponents a round of beer. If you’re a singles player you hope someone has seen your match so you can receive the proper praise. It feels so good to do what you need to do to win, but it feels even better to have your playing noticed.

It has been said that in kids, sports build character but in adults, sports reveal character. What does it say about us when we’re poor losers? We might just want to quit the game, at least until we’ve forgotten how bad it feels to lose. Immediately after the match the adrenaline is still coursing through our system. We’re too mad at ourselves to be depressed yet. There is nothing anyone can say that can be heard at that moment. Once calm, we can quit the game for good. Again. We think about taking up checkers or bowling or an activity in which we might have some skill. We might as well just give our racket away because we sure as hell won’t be needing it anymore. No sir. Why not cede the court to someone who can do it justice?

You have to wonder, when matches are utterly nerve-wracking and competition is so fierce - why we play competitive tennis at all. Feeling like we can’t breathe for the first few games of a match is not that much fun. Losing sleep at night while we replay points in our mind is quite crazy. In the grand scheme of life, how much does tennis really matter? Isn’t there something more noble and philanthropic we should be doing with our time and our money? Something more satisfying?

It may take a day or a week, but we begin to forget how horrible it felt to lose . We have hope again. It might be fun to just get out there and hit. Hitting leads to a social match. It feels so good to be playing. One perfect return down the line or crisp volley or great get can make our day. Our serve is practically perfect. We want spin, we’ve got spin. We try for an angle, it’s magical. The gorgeous lob drops right on the base line. Even the net cord God is with us. The cycle continues as we feel better and better. We are relaxed and focused and well, pretty damn good. We play a match for our team and win. It’s back. It’s all back. The timing, the strokes, the confidence. The joy in the game has returned and it makes us so happy, even smug. Until next time.

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