Flowers in Ahmedabad
— A Tennis Player’s Life on the Pro Tour

But there she was. This flower. Beautifully shaped — fresh and alive with five full petals still open.

Ahmedabad, India. The birthplace of the Indian Independence Movement. A small city 60% the size of Singapore. A metropolitan recognized in the hearts of eight million souls, as Home.

It’s strange — I thought. How a place that can mean so much to so many, still be so foreign and jarring to a single other. “Surely, if it is home to so many, it must account for something?” I thought, the day after I bid my friend Pamela goodbye. I was staying in a guesthouse four minutes by tuk tuk from the courts, but even then, I was really struggling walking the streets alone and dealing with multiple stares from men. Beggars came up to me with plea in their eyes, putting their hands to their mouths. I felt very uncomfortable ignoring them and doing a beeline in my path. Tuk tuk drivers doubled their prices, and I always felt put in a spot, standing by the roadside knowing the driver was swindling me, yet wanting to get moving quickly to avoid further stares.

After all, you are alone. You’re carrying a big bright tennis bag. You’re tall. A woman. Obviously not a local. In full tennis gear. What is a few more rupees in exchange for your safety? It’s always a trippy line I’ve battled with, especially as a player on a shoestring budget. A sort of sick version of Chubby Checker’s Limbo Rock (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgCHOrF5ryY) that sings: how low…can you go? At what point do you go screw it, my safety means far more than saving money. The line can be blur — depending on your tolerance level.

The cheap guesthouse we checked ourselves into that evening. I kid you not. It was that dingy.

In Pamela’s absence, these turn of events though, forced an inevitable, deeper question in my mind. What exactly is Home? What does its name it mean? According to Shakespeare’s Juliet, a name “is nor hand, nor foot… nor any other part belonging to a man”. Instead, it is the sum total of a subject. Home is the familiar streets you grew up playing on. The welcoming smell of mum’s cooking when you step through the door. The simple touch of a loved one, or a silent comforting gaze. An ex-boyfriend used to tell me he had never felt so close to home, as he did when he was with me. I took it as a compliment, but never quite understood what he meant, until, strangely, Ahmedabad came, and I was tasked to navigate the rest of India alone. Far, far from home.

But that is what you are there to do. Far from home. You are there to compete — and when it boils down to that, any city is, as Kenny Daglish, the Liverpool legend wrote, merely the next stage to perform. As a professional player in a foreign city, it is not the malls or tourist sites. The real attractions are the courts. The type of balls. The feel of the surface. The orientation of the land. The slant of the sun. It’s called being in love with the game, and you have a choice of either accepting it and finding goodness in difference, or fighting the “foreignness” with every fibre of your being — and being miserable.

I was sitting by the courts feeling just that — -miserable — when this notion of acceptance hit me. It was the first day after Pamela left, and I was feeling an exceptional sense of solitude. Two men came banging on my guesthouse door the evening she left. En route to the courts, I got stared down at again. Eight players I asked to hit with, couldn’t, and so with resolve, I still forced myself to go to the courts believing I would find someone to practice with there. It can get hard when your visual world doesn’t echo anything that your mind works towards, or your heart wants to believe. In the spiritual world, I’ve been taught, it’s called having faith.

Ahmedabad hadn’t gone so well. I got a good draw, but somewhere in between 42 degree heat and a genuine eagerness to play, I sprayed it 1 and 0. In tennis, it is never about the scoreline, as much as it is about whether you hit the goals you set out to hit. Whether you were faithful to your process, and kept at it through the ups and downs — because they will come, whether you like it or not. You can play fantastic, but still lose. You can play like pigeon crap, but still get through to the next round. The more abiding metric is your faithfulness to your process, and the results always come as a by-product. In Ahmedabad, I stuffed my process and walked off court angry, disappointed, and unspeakably pissed with myself.

Tennis is brutal that way. You get your heart eaten out there, and you have to come back to court the next day, and keep doing the next right thing. Many players lose heart with this, and this is really where the rubber hits the road. How many hits can you take? Process dictated I was to go back and keep practicing, whether I won or lost. Whether I had anyone there. Whether I felt like it, or not.

True to faith, I found someone to practice with that morning, and after that, I sat down with my notebook in hand and watched the matches roll. In his book Winning Ugly, Brad Gilbert, one of the most prominent ex-player-coaches on the ATP talked about how important it is to watch others compete. When he was a player, he would sit down on a bench, take out his little red book, and make notes on other players. Was he a left hander, or a right hander? A double or single handed backhand? How did he move? What was his favourite shot? Over time, he had amassed a library of information on most players, and it was the exercise of making those notes that helped him eventually rise to #2 in the world. Federer does it too, and so does any player serious about doing well on the circuit.

The welling sense of loneliness didn’t matter. Neither did external circumstances. My process dictated that I sit down, and watch.

Ongoing matches in Ahmedabad — the weather was kinder that day.

The match I watched was a Latvian girl ranked WTA600, up against an Oman girl in the top 500. Much to my surprise, I saw Murphy’s Law unfold right before my eyes. Anything that could have possibly gone wrong, went wrong for that Oman girl. She wasn’t finding her rhythm, was getting visibly frustrated, and as hard as she tried, the dots just weren’t connecting. The Latvian player was simple, and stellar. But watching Oman, felt like seeing myself in the third person — faced with all the same predicaments. Then, almost like a terrible joke, she too walked off court, defeated with the same 1 and 0 scoreline.

That’s when it hit me. Everyone goes through the same struggles. It was almost comforting to realize, albeit at the cost of feeling sorry for her. I realized — if the problems that plague us are all the same, is it not then, our response to adversity, that really differentiates us? I looked back at my open notebook to write this down, and was surprised to see a little flower resting on my page. It was then that I noticed I was actually sitting under a blooming tree, and that there were hundreds of little flowers, on the ground around me. Many brown, broken, trampled on. Old from days of sitting there. Clustered together, so that from afar, they looked like brown weeds, tangled around each other in death’s embrace. But there she was. This flower. Resting on my note page. Beautifully shaped — fresh and alive with five full petals still open. So neatly placed, I couldn’t help suspect she had been intentionally placed there by a greater Someone who was trying to cheer me up. Flowers from Heaven, anyone?

The blossoming tree above me.

I had to smile.

And that brought me quite, full circle. Maybe having a sense of Home is not necessarily in a place, but a state of being. Independent of wherever in the world you may be. Home comes from having an overriding sense of love in your spirit-man. It is in recognising the gesture of small things — like a flower on your palm, getting safely to your destination, or smiling at a stranger. Being grateful to go to work, drinking clean water, or holding your child in your arms. The irony is that the more you are filled with love, the more your heart opens, and the easier it gets to keep moving towards the bigger gestures of ambition.

It comes, as this flower taught me, when you feed your spirit to be thankful for the simplicity, of the everyday.

Next week, Fed Cup. On to Hyderabad. Let’s go.

#TenniswithSarah #LifeOnTour #LoveFromAbove