I quit college in 1985 without any real plans for the long-term future.
I wanted to see how far I could go in the game of tennis. I wasn’t the best player on my high school team and in college we played on the fastest surface known to man – which didn’t help me since I’ve never been fleet-footed. I was never able to get my ranking high enough to amount to anything, but I still couldn’t quench my desire to chase my dream.
So in 1986 I got into the best shape of my life and signed up to compete in several tournaments in the Midwest. I played okay in most of them, but I don’t think I ever advanced past the second round. One of those tournaments was in St. Louis, which worked out well since my dad lived there. He shot photos that day, including the one you see in this post. (Check out those Bike shorts!)
The guy I was playing in the first round was striking the ball well. His shots were flat and hard and didn’t give me a lot of time to get into good position for my shots from where I was playing behind the baseline. I knew my only chance was to step inside the court (as seen in the photo) against his serve and become the aggressor. I even started doing that on my own serve, serving and volleying or by staying glued to the baseline to use the pace of his shots against him.
That strategy worked well and it slowed him down enough for me to get my teeth into the match. The first set went into a tiebreak, and I ended up losing it. But I still felt like I could pull it out in three sets.
The second set progressed much like the first – lots of good rallies and lots of winners on both sides. We ended up in another tiebreak, which he won, and just like that, the match was over.
I felt good about the way I’d played. In fact, I didn’t think I could have played any better. He was just better on a couple of the big points, but when you are already playing your best, it’s hard to imagine playing at an even higher level.
After the match, a knowing swept over me. I was a good tennis player who would never be great. I had won a tournament in college, but the reality was, I wasn’t good enough to go deep in tournaments after that. Tennis was going to become something I loved, but nothing more.
My story is similar to what happens to most people who pursue something they love. Most of us aren’t good enough to take it to the next level. But that doesn’t mean we should walk away. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I played in a few more tournaments. I continued to play recreationally. I read books and magazines about the game. And I studied it on television.
All these years later, at the age of 47, I’m no longer able to play the game due to a problem with one of my legs, so now I follow the game for the simple joy it gives me. And that is enough.
Lee Warren is a freelance writer and editor who has written twelve non-fiction books, one novella and hundreds of articles for various newspapers and magazines as well as edited more than 50 books that currently appear in print. He's a fan of NASCAR, baseball, tennis, books, movies and coffee shops.