May 03, 2010

Not just about tennis

The May-June 2010 issue of House Calls magazine has the first of a series of essays I hope to write for them over the next few months. This one, about tennis. (The link above still takes you to the March-April issue, so you can instead read the article below.)

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.


Paresh Palicha said...

I've been following this blog for nearly half a decade, but, never had the gumption to post a comment. I do it now because I love the game (never held a racquet in my hands or even played tennis ball cricket). I loved watching Grand Slam finals on Doordarshan & felt lucky that I was watching players like Boris Becker, Stephan Edberg, Steffi Graf, Gabriala Sabatini etc. played in my lifetime.

Reading Agassi's book was on my to-do list. Your post just intensified the urge.

Jai_C said...

Hi Dilip,

Since its about more than tennis, let me share what this post reminded me of, especially at this point:

"..whenever I play, I must try as hard as I can to play the best I can right then...."

Its this comment:

"....You're not going to stamp out marginal calls and attempts to cheat in any game, however stern the action is. It's the nature of people playing sport. (Hey, I've done it, playing tennis). That's why you have umpires....*"

I am more comfortable with:

"..whenever I play, I must try as hard as I can to play the best I can right then.... [within the spirit of the game as best I understand it]..."

This is especially important in games played without umpires. In such games you are both player and part-umpire.

* this is an excerpt from a comment discussing THE Australia cricket series

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thank you Paresh. You don't need gumption, I wish you had posted a comment before! Definitely read Agassi's book. Also read McEnroe's book, another treasure.

Rohan said...

I wonder what you mean by mediocrity.Is it just accepting whatever you've done and not asking yourself "Okay, that's finished, now let's break the next barrier"? If so, I'm in full agreement. It is infinitely easier than pushing oneself to be the person who exists in our most glorious dreams.
Doesn't this pursuit for excellence have its own price? I'll be reading his autobiography as soon as I can, but well, I feel that while being at the top and staying there is an amazing reward in itself, there's a certain degree of indescribable pain involved. Somewhere along the line are the loss of filial ties, heartbreak and overarching disconnect from the rest of the world. Loneliness too. Those are some feelings which can't be anasthetized.
I used to play tennis, I intend to resume as soon as I can. Damn, you reminded me just how good the thwock of the ball against the strings feels.

Anonymous said...

Andre Agassi's book was fantastic and I have given it to many people to read and all have gotten something out of it. He was not just a champion on the tennis court but remains a champion off of the court with his school in Las Vegas. His second chance became a gift to many children that would not have had a chance otherwise.

Dilip D'Souza said...

TOCat: To me mediocrity is settling for the average instead of the effort to excel (at anything). That's all. Like I said, I'm no great tennis player, but this is something I'm almost conscious of every time I'm on court. I want to hit the best shot I can, each time, every time. It's taken me a while, but now I feel like I want to apply that spirit to other things in my life too. Settling for the average, which I remember being content with earlier, isn't enough any more.

Yes, there is and has to be a price for getting to the top and staying there. But I think Agassi's book shows that even after paying that price, he retains qualities that we can all aspire to.

And I hope you will go out and thwock that ball again. (Want to come do it across the net from me? Let me know).

R. said...

Brilliant post!

Anuradha said...

Great Post.. I have been on the tennis courts for over 20yrs and there's always room for improvement just like anything one does in life.

I am sure you must have also read Arthur Ashe's 'Days of Grace' .. I must pickup "Open" , was available in the expensive hardcover last time I went to the bookstore

Anil said...

Nice post, Dilip. I have been playing for about 3 years now, started playing after I got tennis elbow playing badminton. Surprisingly, my elbow is healed now, and doesnt flare up anymore!
I am still a beginner, still waiting for those long rallies. The feeling when you hit a clean winner keeps me coming back though..