Why we play – Zamir Birnbach, tennis

For this week’s installment of Why We Play, sophomore tennis player Zamir Birnbach writes about some of his tougher losses, and how his teammates have driven his free-spirit approach to the game./ Courtesy of Carlisle Stockton

Bounce  the ball  three times,  pause and breathe. I need this point. I’m getting this point. My left arm shoots up, launching the ball above my head as my hips arch toward the net, knees bent. I jump up to meet the ball and snap my wrist, racket arching from behind, to brush the ball with maximum spin. Then I sprint into the court. I dump the volley into the net. I lose the point. Shucks. Slightly dejected and trying not to show it, I gather the freshly missed ball and trudge back to the baseline.

“LET’S GO ZAMIIIII!!!” A grin spreads beneath my visor as I turn to look at the bleachers. My boys. My brothers. My team.

Most people think of tennis as an individual sport. They’re not entirely wrong; most youth tennis is played individually, with grueling training schedules that can overshadow even schooling. At the professional level, tennis players are even more isolated as they travel alone, barely earning enough to make it to the next tournament. But in college, or at least here at Vassar, tennis is a team.

I started tennis just after picking up my first racket at the Rite Aid by the park. It was an Andre Agassi special junior edition. Pretty dope. My mom was naturally very patient with me, seeing as I was only about five, and a few years later I started playing in a summer league at a nearby club. Throughout elementary school I played in a junior program at the University of Washington twice a week, training alongside people who would later become some of my closest friends. However, tennis was never a priority; it always came after my citywide soccer team, piano lessons and Tae Kwon Do. High school was the time when I had to pick which sport I would seriously pursue, and I decided to go with tennis. I stopped Tae Kwon Do after getting my second-degree black belt, and soccer I enjoyed, but I wasn’t quite top-tier. In tennis, I thought I was hot stuff. I thought I had a chance to get recruited to Stanford, or some equally prestigious and rigorous Division 1 program. Boy, was I wrong.

In the summer after eighth grade, I pulled up to a tennis camp at the magnificent Magnuson Park, an expansive area packed with sports fields, beautiful trails and plenty of waterfront property. Unfortunately, we were forced to play on the decrepit outdoor courts, as the indoor courts were still under construction. At least Seattle summers are nice. For the first couple of weeks at the camp, I was easily the best player. My confidence was soaring as different kids rolled up for me to feast upon. I could beat all of them! Man, getting into college was going to be easy-peasy lemon freakin’ squeezy! But then Thomas Paulsell showed up and rocked my world. Short (much shorter than I, believe it or not), skinny, complete baby face, but he was giving me a run for my money. I wasn’t winning 5-1 or 7-2 in the groundstroke game; each round was a battle. Sometimes I would even lose! And then I found out he would be starting fourth grade in the fall.

Fourth grade. Bruh.

This punk was five years younger than I was— the same age as my little brothers—and was already almost as good as me. How’s that for a confidence boost? That fall he joined me to train in the High Performance program at the freshly constructed 10-court, one-café complex on the other side of the park, away from where we had our first fateful encounter. I played there three to four times a week, with two workout sessions and a mental toughness session each week as well. Talent kept pouring in, as the new building and head coach were both very attractive to ea-ger mothers. Each month it seemed a new middle schooler would pull a banana out of his lunch box, kick my ass around the court, then go back home to catch a couple stories before bedtime. If that wasn’t enough, there were kids like Jason Lui, just a year younger, who were top 100 in the nation. Jason is now playing at Columbia and was top 30 in the country during his recruitment. I was humbled.

I justified my inferiority to myself with thoughts like “Well, does Jack know how to play piano?” and “Has Colton ever gone to a debate tournament?” and “Do Marcus’ parents love

him?” Maybe not that last one—he was an only child so they really had no choice—but these thoughts helped me get on the right track. I had made choices in my life to pursue other activities, and these guys pretty much just picked tennis. It is what it is. Do I regret not seriously getting into tennis earlier? Maybe, but then I would embarrass myself at kick-arounds, and the memories from even just the soccer carpools around town are invaluable. Plus I’m a music major now, so the only thing I’m regretting in that regard is the fact that I didn’t practice piano enough, but that’s beside the point. I relished each opportunity I had to play against these top guys because that was the best way to improve. And I had my fair share of groundstroke/volley game wins against them, too! I was content with my level. I had accepted it, and I set out to do with it what I could.

My decision to play tennis in college wiped the vast majority of institutions off the map. Division I programs were out of the question unless I wanted to entirely sacrifice academics, which I did not. Division II schools are just, well, weird, so that left Division III. Somehow, after a chain of fortuitous events that started with a random suggestion from my dad to email the Vassar coach before a recruiting event (I literally said to pops, “What’s a Vassar?”), I ended up in Poughkeepsie —and I couldn’t be happier with my decision.

Now here we are. The entire Vassar College Men’s Tennis team (VCMT for short) is like a group of lovable, quirky, wild and unpredictable colors that blend together in a symphony of perfect dissonant harmony. Every man contributes something different from the next, and when one out of the 11 is gone, we all feel it. I play tennis here at Vassar not because I love the game, not because I’m dying to win, but because I love my brothers. I live for the heart-to-hearts on the long bus rides, two-hour long Pho excursions, top-notch banter with a top-notch coach (Emperor Wong) and of course the much-needed hydration games on the weekends. Getting a win is wonder-ful as well, and it leaves your heart full and a taste of comradery in your mouth.

As I bounce the ball for the next point, I look down the row of courts and see five brothers battling with all their might. I hear the remaining brothers supporting us with a barrage of inside jokes and generic words of encouragement. And I feel the love and passion reverberating through all of us.

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