I came to tennis late. I didn’t start playing until I was 16 (almost 17). It didn’t bother me tremendously because I loved the sport and found I could hold my own with my high school competitors (though sadly, not in the USTA Juniors rankings.)
I started toward the end of my junior year of high school, and I was intoxicated by the great progress that early growth allows. I went from not knowing how to serve to picking up a servicable serve-and-volley game quickly. I learned how to control my swing so I could hit with power while keeping the ball in the confines of the court. For the first time in my life, I felt athletic.
As summer came, I went from practicing two or three hours a week to practicing two or three hours each day, plus matches – each of which could last two hours on its own. Every day I was on the court at 9am. On good days it was 93 degrees. On bad days it was closer to 100. There was no shade. Houston summers are unrelenting like that.
I grew strong with my efforts, but the more I learned about tennis, the more I struggled to continue my advancement. Sure, I could follow through in the broad sense, showing up to practice every day and playing, but progress with my technique was harder fought. I missed the quick progress of the early months as I worked through endless drills with little improvement on my slice or my serve.
Tennis is a mental game as much as a physical one, and my mind was weak. I struggled to improve in the endless drills because I was easily distracted: if someone cracked a joke, I’d lose focus and laugh as I hit my shots, sending them in unpredictable directions, laughing all the more at my loss of control. My coach was not amused.
To him, regaining one’s focus after a distraction was a matter of discipline – the mind a muscle to be conditioned like any other. To me, it was a matter of luck. I didn’t believe I could bring my mind back once it had wandered. I would try sometimes, but my efforts to quiet the world around me and focus on placing my next shot often failed, which I took as proof that my mind was beyond such discipline. This made me laugh harder, out of shame, which was even more distracting. The best I could do in these situations was to keep hitting and hope that I’d land a few shots. If I could do that, then I could focus and then the ball would go where I saw it in my mind’s eye.
I mistakenly thought that by refusing to give up I would manifest grit somewhere within myself. I thought that staying in the game, still hitting, was the same thing as working hard to get better at it. It will surprise no one when I say that I had a hard time coming back whenever an opponent was able to break my serve (which happened more often than it should’ve, c.f. lack of focus.) I’d try to tap into my inner underdog and work for each point, so I could get ahead, but I also had an inner critic telling me the game was as good as finished. It’s hard to play your best tennis when you’re listening to that voice. I lost a lot of matches I could have won because I believed that I would never be able to achieve the level of focus and skill my opponents had. I felt that the fact that I had kept playing and tried to win, only to still lose, proved that I could never win a match where my serve was broken. But I got out there and kept swinging anyway.
“Just keep swinging and see if you land something,” is a strategy I still use, though I’m slowly beginning to realize it’s not enough. I try lots of things that don’t work, and my peculiar mix of defeatism and hapless-continuation-masquerading-as-grit often resurfaces with each failure. I get discouraged and confused – I question my choices, I often wonder if I’m on the wrong path entirely, if I’m insane for continuing to work hard for what I’m after when I keep missing the mark. It’s hard for me to tell the difference between grit and beating my head against a wall. I keep swinging, but I can’t visualize any success. I burn out.
“You don’t follow through,” my coach said to me one day, after I returned his serve. He was right. I’d stop short when I returned a shot, almost as soon as the ball left the strings of my racquet. With practice, I learned to finish my swing, and to keep moving, to run a few steps instead of coming to a standstill and waiting for the next return to come my way. You can guess which technique has more power, how it creates and requires more agility all at once.
I struggle to follow through in my adult life, too. I get a job I like and get caught up in the maintenance of income and bills and a comfortable life with hobbies on the side. I lose momentum and stop pushing through to try to make those hobbies something more, to make that slow progress on craft and technique that only comes when I put in the hours. The life I dream of living seems too far to reach, beyond my capabilities. Sometimes I do push, but I get scared that I’m moving myself in the wrong direction. I forget that most tennis players simply keep moving and course-correct as needed. Federer was able to hit a winner while running backwards – what am I so afraid of?
I’m learning to fight my urge to keep swinging from where I am and to move forward without questioning my sense of direction. It’s the only way to find out what’s actually within my reach.