The decision-making process has always fascinated me. It involves weighing all of your options, getting advice from trusted friends, prayer, and when it all clicks, a knowing sweeps through your gut. That’s what happened to me in 1986.
I quit college in 1985, without any real plans for the long-term future. Sounds like a kid, doesn’t it? But in the short term, 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 of foot, so I wasn’t able to get my ranking high enough to amount to anything, but I still couldn’t quench my desire to see what I could do. And I always believed that I could out work most people.
So, in 1986, I got into the best shape of my life by playing tennis for three or four hours every day, and then I 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. It was indoors and Dad watched the match from up above, snapping photos. It felt both odd and exhilarating to be chasing a dream in front of him.
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 a good position for my shots. My only chance was to step inside the court against his serve and become the aggressor, using the pace of his shots against him. Meanwhile, I kicked up my serve and volley efforts a notch. The strategy worked pretty well and it slowed him down. The first set went into a tiebreak and I lost 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 and he won. 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 in each tiebreak, but when you are already playing your best tennis, 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 won a tournament in college, but the reality was, I wasn’t good enough to go deep enough in any tournament after that. Tennis was going to become something I loved to play, 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 and I continued to play recreationally. I read books and magazines about the game. And I studied it on television.
I’m fifty-four now and very little has changed, except my waistline. I still love everything about the game, from the cordial spirit of competition to the way I feel when I hit a good shot. But more than anything, the tennis court has always been an equalizer for me, and I think that’s why I love it most. I have instincts on the court that I don’t have anywhere else, which allows me to overcome my rather large size and otherwise slow-footedness. As such, tennis helps me feel normal.
When Andre Agassi was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011, he gave one of the most dynamic and life-altering speeches you will ever hear. I recommend it to all of my friends who have children.
“Tennis has not only given me much; it has taught me much,” he said. “It’s no accident that tennis uses the language of life: service, advantage, break, fault, love. The lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity.
“In tennis, you prepare and you prepare and then one day your preparation seems futile. Nothing’s working and the other guy’s got your number, cold. So you improvise.
“In tennis, you learn what I do instantly affects what you do and vice versa. Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive, reactive – all at the same time.
“Tennis teaches you the subtlety of human interaction – the curse and blessing of cause and effect. After you play tennis for a living, you never forget that we are all connected.”
Shortly thereafter, he makes this observation.
“Tennis is a lonely sport – probably the most lonely. You are out there with no team, no coach, and no place to hide. That’s why tennis players not only talk to themselves but answer. And yet all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone.”
Tennis not only taught me to stand alone, but it gave me the confidence and courage to do so. I’m not an out-of-shape middle-aged guy on the tennis court. I’m someone who belongs there – someone who has touch at the net and good enough feel to hit a topspin lob over your head if you approach the net.
Even though I don’t play the game much anymore because of a problem with one of my legs, I’m still involved in it. It almost gives me as much joy to read about it and watch it as it did to play it. Yeah, in a way I’m living vicariously now, but at any given moment, my mind can flash back to my playing days and everything just feels right.
This essay appears in Sacred Grounds: First Loves, First Experiences, and First Favorites.