Before coming to college, I played several sports: tennis, cross-country, volleyball and even a little basketball (the latter of the four was a complete disaster), but I ultimately ended up ditching all of them except for tennis. I learned how to play tennis when I was six years old, and I have practiced or competed essentially every day since the first time I held a racket.
For years during the summer I would have practice at 6:30 a.m. every day (to avoid the scorching New Orleans summer heat) and would play until around noon. I had many friends growing up who continued on to compete at Division I schools, some of whom, it seemed went to tennis practice in place of school. I played for three years on Vassar’s varsity team, until stopping this year due to other various commitments I had made that unfortunately took precedent over tennis (in other words, my future).
In my years as a competitive tennis player, it never ceased to amaze me how obsessed people are with tennis. I think about other sports fans and their obsessions with football, baseball or basketball, the list goes on (many would argue there’s no crazier obsessed fan than an LSU or Saints fan), but I almost believe tennis players take their obsession to a whole new level of crazy. Tennis fans, for the most part, eat, sleep and breathe the sport. Just ask my parents.
It was my dad who got me into tennis. I took it up nicely. Don’t get me wrong; tennis never came easily to me. I had to really work for it, which made the good days all the more rewarding just like anything else. My dad, excited that he had a child he could share his love for the game with, took me to practices, signed me up for tennis clinics, would hit with me most days after my regular practice and would take me to tennis tournaments out of town on most weekends. It was a part of his life and of mine, and in that we shared a special connection. He never played tennis in high school or college, but was self-taught, and to be honest, he’s pretty good. If you ever come to my house, odds are if my dad isn’t out playing tennis, he’s on the couch watching it on TV. He plays before and after work as often as he can, and he talks about tennis constantly. He just can’t get enough of it.
My mom, who played tennis growing up, stopped when she had kids, but soon picked it up again after I began playing. She too has now caught “the tennis bug.” She plays as often as possible, in flex-leagues, before and after work, and on weekends. She is constantly talking about what she can do to improve her backhand and she’s far more competitive than most. As hard as she works, when she has free time, she wants to be on the tennis court, no questions asked. I am secretly convinced that if she had really played competitively when she was my age, she would have gone pro. Of all of these truths, I am most certain that if either of my parents couldn’t play tennis, they’d be completely lost.
What’s interesting is, I know many families just like mine, where tennis runs deep within their veins, a genetic trait passed down for generations. But there’s something about tennis that makes people’s obsessions go beyond this, and it’s not simply the fact that it’s a “lifetime” sport.
In its most rudimentary form, it’s quite simple. You try to manipulate a spherical ball across a seemingly unconquerable divide to your opponent, and this can go on for any length of time. Yet this “manipulation” is addictively difficult and takes on a new level of complexity. You never know if the ball and your wrist and arm will behave properly on any given day. In addition, tennis is unbelievably physical and even more mentally strenuous. It provides one opportunities to emotionally and mentally lacerate one’s self, and trust me I’ve seen it and experienced it first-hand. You can make mistake after mistake, often times the same one, and it will start to eat away at you and make you go a little bit insane. Oh and you’re basically all alone. Tennis is as many say, the loneliest sport.
Perhaps this is what makes tennis so addictive: a bunch of type-A, compulsive, neurotic people with perfectionist mentalities that are trying to perfect a sport that is impossible to perfect or to even come close to for that matter. Look at professional tennis players Roger Federer or Serena Williams. They’re both 34 years old and are both arguably the greatest athletes that have ever lived; certainly the best male and female tennis players to have ever lived. They could both happily retire, knowing that they have left an incredible legacy behind them, but they don’t. They are both still playing with no end in sight. They’re obsessed. They’re trying to get their game perfect.
Maybe professional tennis player Andre Agassi said it best, “Tennis teaches you there’s no such thing as perfect…you hope to be perfect, then you’re out there and you’re far less than perfect. And you realize, I don’t really have to be perfect, I just have to be better than one person…Tennis is…probably the most lonely [sport]. You’re out there with no team, no coach, and no place to hide. That’s why tennis players not only talk to themselves, but also answer. And yet all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone.”
Tennis does in fact teach you life lessons as many other sports do. Patience, practice, perseverance and imperfection among other things, and when you embrace it as a sort of lifestyle you start to metaphorically compare your life to a tennis match. Tennis becomes ingrained into you brain like an internal hardwiring, and even when you stop playing competitively, the things you learned, the matches you’ve played, the world that is tennis doesn’t leave you. In all honesty, while I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes tennis stand out from other sports, Agassi aptly noted, “Tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love—the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.”