“Hit ten in a row,” my coach said to me. I was six years old. I don’t remember the coach’s name. I don’t even remember her face. But the goal she set for me—five forehands and five backhands in a row over the net—is an early tennis memory that remains ingrained in me. She told the women on the court to my right to watch me as she began to feed the ball, showing off her young player. And I didn’t mind in the slightest. I loved the attention, and I loved being recognized for my accomplishments. While I later boasted to my parents with my six-year-old arrogance about the number of shots I made in a row over the net and into the singles court, I did not recognize the valuable tennis and life lessons I had learned that day. It was the first time that I can recall being taught to set goals for myself and embrace a challenge. Growing up, in addition to tennis, I played basketball, baseball and soccer, and participated in martial arts. Among all these sports, I always enjoyed tennis the most. This is not to say that there were never moments in which I thought I hated tennis; at times, I wanted to break all of my rackets and leave the sport behind. Yet something always brought me back to the game, and I would force myself to put down my head and give it another shot.
At 12 years old, I decided to play tennis competitively. I was always a competitive person (at times too much so). The kids in my tennis class did not take the sport very seriously, which frustrated me. Due to my competitive nature, I wanted to train more intensely. So I began to participate in regional tournaments. At the time, I was unaware of how much of a physical and mental test it would be to push my game to the next level.
I lost in the first round of my first three tournaments—all without winning a set. In my third match, I didn’t even win a game, losing 6-0, 6-0. I remember my opponent and his confident demeanor, which intimidated me right as we set foot onto the court. I felt lost and undeserving of being across the net from this player.
Despite the three losses, including the one particularly embarrassing loss, I continued to train. I continued to motivate myself and tried to remain optimistic that my hard work would eventually pay off. I aspired to have the same confidence that my opponent who had beaten me 6-0, 6-0 had.
Three months later, nearing the end of the summer, I competed in my fourth tournament. I had trained hard. I had learned from my defeats and aimed to utilize them to help me succeed. As I arrived at my fourth tournament, the nerves set in, and self-doubt crept into my mind. Yet I tried to remain optimistic as I stepped onto the court. Throughout the two sets, I was able to execute the parts of my game that I had worked on, and I won my first match. I was ecstatic. The drought of losses had ended. While I would go on to lose in the second round, I had proven to myself that I could play at a competitive level.
Over the next few years, I continued to train and compete in regional tournaments. My results continued to improve. I began to win multiple rounds and advanced to the semifinals and finals of tournaments. In December 2010—as an eighth grader—I won my first regional tournament for my age group. I felt a mixture of happiness and relief. It had taken two years. The training and frustrating moments over that period of time had all been worth it.
Through the end of middle school and throughout high school I carried on my tennis career. As I gained more experience, I also began to participate in sectional and national tournaments. Additionally, I played tennis in the spring for Mamaroneck High School. In the summer of 2013, going into my junior year, I was the number two seed in a sectional tournament in Rockland County, NJ. I recognized the name of the number one seed on the other side of the draw. It was the same person that had beaten me 6-0, 6-0 in that indelible match over four years ago. When we both made the finals of the tournament, I was excited for the opportunity to prove to myself that I deserved to be on the court with him. I was ready for the challenge, and I was convinced that I could beat him this time.
The match proved to be grueling. Despite opportunities for me to win the first set, I could not close it out. I lost the first set 6-7 (5-7 in the tiebreaker). Although I was tired and frustrated, I knew that I was within striking distance. I shook off the first set and focused on coming out strong in the next one.
My opponent seemed unsettled by how quickly I managed to hit the reset button. I swiftly won the second set 6-2, which meant that the match was to be decided by a tiebreak to ten points. As I took a brief rest and hydrated, I told myself that I needed to come out strong if I wanted to win the match.
The tiebreak was extremely close. I had been serving well throughout the match. When I was up 6-5, I hit an ace out wide on the ad side to give myself a more comfortable 7-5 lead. I eventually would pull out the match with a 10-7 win in the tiebreak, winning the tournament. As I approached the net and shook my opponent’s hand, I was overcome with joy. I knew that this win was special, and I knew that it was one that I would remember.
This experience was one of many that taught me that losing matches is essential to growth as a tennis player. The losses help me better understand the parts of the game that I need to work on. I can use the losses as motivation to improve and win the next time the opportunity presents itself.
Great gains can be made by simply taking little steps—be it learning how to hold the racket, or making a shot into the court. Then you make a few shots in a row, and then you make ten. Each new goal presents a new opportunity and a new obstacle to overcome. Each little step combined culminates in a huge leap forward. Over four years, a disappointing 6-0, 6-0 loss can transform into the drive to beat that same opponent when the next chance arises. The difficult parts of the journey make the positive outcomes all the more meaningful. Without the challenge of a tough opponent, what would be the point of competition? Competition was never meant to be easy.