Retirement and hitting rock bottom.
Almost one year ago I took the heartbreaking decision of giving up playing tennis. My results were not the ones expected by me or my coach or my family, the recruiting process didn’t go as planned (although I received offers from D1 universities I had chances to get into higher ranked ones based solely on my academics) and putting all those hours and emotions into sports wasn’t justified anymore especially since I was entering my senior year and had the leaving examination waiting for me at the end of the year.
What followed was a severe case of athlete’s depression and I will write another post describing the experience but I feel positive today and I will fast-forward in order to get to today, at the end of the first competition I played in almost a year.
First tournament results and what I want to write about.
On paper, I came in 4th out of 8 girls, winning two of the four matches I played over the course of two infernally challenging days in temperatures higher than legally allowed. Not bad, but not extraordinary either, right? As always, when dealing with tennis, paper says nothing.
I want to describe the differences I felt playing these days compared to last year and the feeling of pure happiness I experienced being on the court again having an opponent on the other side of the net. I also want to give a little insight as to how I finally learned what a difference the mental part of the game has and how my changed perspective of the game helped or hindered me this week.
First of all, all my life I played matches with pressure and feeling very tight, very rigid, so differently than how I was feeling and playing in training. Thinking of winning and losing, of the people watching me, of my results and how they would affect my college recruiting, I was unable to perform at my best. I was desperate to close the points early resulting in many, many enforced errors and in my opponents gaining confidence that I would lose the match and that they wouldn’t have to win it.
During this past year, I learned to relax and enjoy my time on the court as well as the game itself. I learned to rejoice for the beautiful points, even those won by the opponent and get past the mistakes easier. And in the first two matches I played I did exactly that.
Proof that I changed and the first match.
Proof was that I didn’t hurry, letting my opponent make the mistakes and just enjoying putting the ball one more time inside the court. Not thinking about the points in themselves let my mind free to analyse the game itself and I was surprised to see how it looked. I sensed the pressure points but wasn’t intimidated and could see the other girl tensing and predicted her double-fault or her trying an impossible shot. In the first set, she had two set points. I could almost see her think of how close she was but it didn’t scare me. I saved the first one by being very careful and during the second set point I was so relaxed and could see how the point was going so clearly that I felt I had more time in between shots and managed a perfect drop-shot. This would have never been possible before.
I didn’t care that my serve wasn’t functioning very well and that everybody would think that I cannot serve, because I knew that my other weapons were enough to overpower my opponent. I didn’t even think much of winning, except that I knew it was possible from a very realistic analysis of my and the girl’s game and shots. With my head so clear, I could hear all the theories and tactics I could never apply before. “You don’t have to play your best every match, you simply need to play better than your opponent”, one of the simplest and hardest lessons in tennis that I only now managed to fully comprehend. There was no need for me to get upset about my serve or worry about it. Oh, the feeling of not panicking especially when I knew that I would normally start over thinking it was exquisite.
Second match goes even better. Getting accustomed to the new mindset.
My second match was even better. I always sustained the idea of fighting till the end but I have also always been convinced that a player knows when one can or cannot win a match. It’s like watching a game on TV. Most of the times, you know who will win, it is clear to you and to those betting resulting in those odds at the betting houses. Why or how wouldn’t the player themselves know? This is exactly what happened in my second match. I knew I was better and the girl over the net knew it. It wasn’t that she had bad strokes or that she was playing poorly but the difference was clear. This in itself would normally mean nothing. I lost many matches to players who were considered weaker than me and also managed some big wins against higher ranked opponent. But what I wanted to say and what I felt was that I managed to look at the situation from the outside. I saw that the girl wasn’t very confident and I was able to see that there was not one moment during the match when she believed she could win it, even if I was making mistakes or not appearing strong. On the other hand, I could see myself feeling my shots and decided going for them even risking some mistakes. But those risks were calculated and chosen wisely at appropriate time, another thing I couldn’t do before: see the match flow and the ideal moments when to accelerate the game or hit the brakes. This perspective was empowering and I was very happy that even though I thought of victory the moment I hit the first ball with the girl I was able to put the thought aside and simply play and treat every point seriously and respect and enjoy it.
Third match and the relapse. Physical effort takes its toll on the mind.
My third match unfortunately went and felt differently, more like before. It didn’t help that I knew my opponent very well and remembered the last match I played against her and the score (12-o) perfectly. I also felt very tired, having played two matches in grueling heat a day before and not being as fit as I needed for competition. In short, it took me almost a set to reach the set of mind I had achieved a day before and it was already too late. The girl played really well, but, and this is a huge “but” I didn’t let the match pass without a purpose as I used to do before. I didn’t give up and didn’t wish for it to be done quicker to avoid humiliation. I set some smaller goals such as trying to hit at least 2 ball each point or going for that short-crosscourt I felt would do some damage and managed to achieve them. At the end of the match I didn’t feel as defeated as I would usually feel after a loss but was able to write down what I managed to do well and what not. In a way, I was happy I learned some tactics that worked against her.
Last match and how easy it would be to go back.
My last and fourth match was an entire different story. I was exhausted and didn’t have the power to fight. The girl had a really uncomfortable game and all I could think of was that someone I knew won against her 12-o and that I would lose to her and how that would look. I know it’s stupid and pointless but I couldn’t change this mindset and after years of playing with it, going back to those old habits was too easy.
All in all, I consider this a great tournament which gave me the necessary confidence to know that I can in fact play competition and win matches and that I can hope for a spot on the university team. It also showed me how differently you can look at the same thing if you can control your mindset and attitude towards it just a little bit. I am convinced this can be applied to everything else in life not only sports and look forward to apply my newly found relaxation and appreciation in other areas as well. I discovered how fun playing points can be and that the pressure only exists if you put it there. I felt empowered to be able to sense the momentum of the matches and look at them as if I was seeing them on TV and thus being able to decide quicker and more efficient on the best choice of shots and tactics.
Conclusions and becoming a tennis player again.
Now, contrary of how I used to feel after tournaments, I look forward to the next one. I want to see how and if I am able to get into this new mindset again and spend time on the court. I am also motivated to get in the necessary physical form for competing again and feel motivated and confident. I am able to see why and how I won and lost the matches and feel good about my achieved little targets and not bad about losing. Of course, it’s no pleasure to come off of the court defeated but it’s no tragedy either. Luckily, this is not the manner in which I’m winning my bread and nothing but my moral depends on it. So, I am taking the conscious decision to see the bright side of the tournament, something I could never do before and enjoy my training and future matches even more.
How I love calling myself a tennis player again.