I called it "33, going on 40"; in print, it appears as "It's not just about tennis!"
Comments welcome, even if you're no tennis fan. Especially if you're no tennis fan. But definitely expected if you are a tennis fan, or better yet, a player. (And if you play, how about a hit sometime?)
The feeling comes rarely, but when it does, it's a good one. Most recently, it came during a session with Gert, a young Irish woman I had seen practicing on the wall. I asked if she'd like to hit sometime, and a few days later, we got on court. There was this one point we played, and for some unexplained reason I counted the shots that time; and that time, it just went on and on. Backhand to forehand to backhand to volley to running back to return a lob, on and on and I could feel a smile growing on my face over how well I was playing (and she was playing) this particular point, not holding anything back, fighting hard, but the shots kept going just like I wanted (and she wanted), and the years dropped away and I was moving around just as smoothly and quickly as I had ever moved on court and I could see the smile on her face too … yeah, I counted the shots, and when it finally ended and I now don't even remember who won the point, Gert and I had sent 33 strokes back and forth across the net. We stood there panting, bent over our rackets, but smiling goofily at the experience.
Then we returned to hitting. My next shot crashed into the net. Back to the grind.
Still, for me, that rally is something to savour, and I savour it still. I've played tennis for years. When I'm playing regularly and am fit, I get the feeling I can hit with anyone. My problem really is that I've never been consistent with my shots, never been able to consistently sustain a rally beyond a few strokes. So when it occasionally does happen, it's like nirvana.
What you have to understand is that for me, tennis is nearly a first love. (Nearly). Few things are as satisfying as when I smack a clean backhand winner past the guy on the other side of the net. Forehand too, but particularly the backhand. Why so, you ask? Because I always found the backhand a less "intuitive" stroke to play than others, and because when I do it well I can actually feel various body parts coming together in concert. Something about that is beautiful. Tennis, it's like that.
And when I can keep it up through 33 strokes, there's something more. It's as if the guy on the other side and I are linked by that yellow ball of fuzz, together painting a canvas of power and guile, athleticism and yes, excellence. Yes, even if I say so myself. It's why the lady and I smiled through our exertions. It's why I said that thing about a first love. It's why I feel deep in my bones that other thing that's been said before: tennis, it's like life. All the way from love to excellence.
May not be the same for everyone who plays the game, of course. Andre Agassi, for one, you'd think from a quick reading of his recent autobiography, "Open". Agassi says again and again that he hates the game. Not only that, when he first meets his wife, the great Steffi Graf, he finds that she hates the game too, and that's an immediate bond between them.
But give them their hate, it doesn't bother me. These are also two greatly driven and yet always thoughtful, introspective human beings. Agassi's pursuit of the summit of tennis tells us plenty about him, about what it takes to get there.
About, really, what's important in life.
Two examples. Early in his career, Agassi wore his hair long, then found he was losing hair, so he actually wore a wig for a while. (Astounding fact: Nobody knew. Confession: Not even this tennis junkie.) Then he tired of the charade and shaved himself bald. In many ways, this actually liberated him and the second half of his career was the brighter half by far. "Losing my hair was the best thing that ever happened to me", he writes.
At some point in this second half, his sister is diagnosed with breast cancer. She is dreading the loss of her hair to chemotherapy, but listening to her brother, she decides that she should get rid of it before the cancer takes it. "An act of defiance," says Agassi, "a seizing of control." So he brings her home and shaves her head himself. "She laughs and laughs," writes this tennis-champ-turned-barber, "and it feels good to make my sister laugh when every day does its best to make her cry."
Later, Agassi sets up a school in his hometown, Las Vegas. Not a tennis academy, which you might expect a tennis star to do, but a full-fledged and fully-equipped school for underprivileged kids. Because he thinks every kid must have an education, and the best possible one.
Near the end of the book, Agassi tells of how he has to speak to the first graduating class. He's wondering what to say, "obsessing over his speech." Eventually, he decides to speak about contradictions. "Life is a tennis match between polar opposites", he will tell them. You have to embrace the contradictions within you, or reconcile them, or at least accept them -- but you cannot ignore them. Interesting enough that a sportsman chooses such a theme to speak on. But then: "What other message could they expect," writes this tennis legend, "from a ninth-grade dropout whose proudest accomplishment is his school [i.e. the one he has set up]?"
Perhaps you're surprised that the two examples I chose have nothing to do with tennis? And yet I submit that they have everything to do with the game. Because for Agassi, it is the sustained chase to be the best in his sport that, oddly, drives home for him the value of all else in his life. It gives him the clarity of vision to know what matters and what matters less. We should all be that lucky. I mean, maybe this doesn't happen to everyone, not even to everyone who plays a sport at the rarefied level that Agassi inhabited. But the sacrifices Agassi must make, the immense satisfaction he gets from a hard-fought tournament win, these things serve only to underline what so many other things mean to him. For me, in the way it speaks to me, this is the lesson of this book, but of tennis itself.
Think of it: this is a man who won eight Grand Slam tournaments, including all four of them at least once -- a feat only a few other players in history have managed. And this man tells us his "proudest accomplishment is his school". This man understands how he can give his sister the strength to fight a battle for her life.
So, confession time again, let's get some things straight. Yes, I can hit some handsome tennis shots, every now and then. Yes, I have played with some pretty good players, and always felt I could keep a rally going with them, for a while at any rate. But no, I never played competitively. I am nowhere within screaming distance of the kind of tennis Agassi plays. Yet the longer I spent on the tennis court, the more something struck me, especially as I grew out of a youth when I actually believed I could settle for, even live with, the ease of mediocrity.
This is what struck me: whenever I play, I must try as hard as I can to play the best I can right then.
The search for that little spot of excellence is an exercise worthwhile in itself. One reward, as I found with Gert the Irish lady, is the occasional and intensely satisfying 33-stroke rally. And like every good summit will do, it only pushes you toward the next. Me, I've got my sights set on 40. One of these years …
But the greater reward is what it does for the other places in your life. If I can't play tennis like Andre Agassi, at least I can share with him a little clarity about what matters. So by now, I know: it's the family. It's the people around me. It's the effort to do whatever I do -- tennis, career, parenting, whatever -- as well as I can do it.
It's not that I need to proclaim this to the world, believe me. It's just a quiet principle I like to aspire to. You see, mediocrity just doesn't seem that easy any more. Trying to make it to 40 strokes, strangely enough, seems far more interesting.