Tennis: A Healthy Obsession

October 24th, 2013 § 0 comments

In your loneliness, your preoccupation with an enduring new reality, you want to be understood in a way you can’t be. -Meghan O’Rourke 

It all began with my old boss. I’d moved to New York City a few years prior, and was working as a retoucher for a fashion company under an eccentric New Yorker who used to work for Rolling Stone. A sucker for anything new and different, I remember her talking about visiting the US Open one afternoon at work. Knowing nothing at all about tennis or the US Open, I didn’t even know what a Grand Slam was, it still sounded like something both local and necessary to do. The last behavioral remnant of being the youngest child, I still can’t stand being left out. I remember buying tickets to the quarterfinals, and trekking out to Flushing on a gray, rainy September morning with my somewhat new boyfriend in tow. I remember the massive size of Arthur Ashe stadium, the largest and windiest tennis arena in the world. We looked at the main draw and my significant other tried to make sense of the sea of names in front of us: the men’s match of the day featured Rafael Nadal. What I remember of that first visit is getting to see exactly seven minutes of tennis before the rain began. We spent the day at the Open regardless, shopping, drinking champagne and enjoying the grounds.


The following year I vaguely remember Nadal’s 2012, second round upset from Wimbledon. I know I was watching the scores from my computer at work, not worried that he was losing or concerned with why. After Rafa’s shock defeat I decided to follow him on Facebook, perhaps because he was the only player I’d ever seen play. It was an odd time to start following Rafa, and instead of watching him play I watched as he pulled out of tournament after tournament, two Grand Slams and the Olympics, as he began what would become the most unexpected absence in men’s tennis: Rafa’s 7 month stint at home in Mallorca nursing his left knee. All of tennis that I remember from the rest of 2012 were Rafa’s updates and the unspectacular rise of Andy Murray. Perhaps it was Rafa’s oddly childish personality that sparked my interest in the rest of the tour and I wondered, were all the players like this? Did all their Facebook pages look and sound like Rafa’s? I thought it was just the manner in which athletes posted about their profession and interested, I began searching through other top player’s social media. To my surprise most of them were clinical, boring and strictly about tennis. There were no silly videos of them cooking pasta, fish or steak, no pictures of them with their friends, no blurry cellphone images of them hugging their little sister or grinning ear to ear with their cousins.

Rafa Ball Toss

I started following the WTA and ATP tours (my love for women’s professional tennis could be a separate entry entirely) in earnest early this year when Rafa came back to the men’s tour in Febuary. He entered in tiny tournaments and played rusty tennis, and many commentators had already written him off. Rafa, they said, will never be the same, and yet, come October, he’s number one in the world. His comeback will be considered one of the best not just in tennis history but in the history of sports. I watched him win the US Open when I bought tickets hoping just to see him play one match. Rafa says that to be champion you have to love suffering, and that if you don’t have doubts, you know nothing about life. Bridging the gap between watching tennis and playing it this summer has been quite the journey. When I started taking classes I couldn’t find a comfortable hand to hold the racquet, and I missed the ball completely more often than not. I was the worst one in my class and my instructor repeatedly said, “you need to be patient and have fun.” I wasn’t either. I worked all summer, everyday, alone at the wall in the park. One day I found a Polish hitting partner as obsessed as I was with improving her game, and together we spent the summer at the courts.

tennis courts

I’m not exactly good now, but when I begin my new lessons this winter I know I will be able to hold my own. I have a nice crosscourt backhand, and a more and more reliable forehand. If I remember to get down to the ball and turn my racquet face like the old, drunken Polish men at the park taught me, I’m not half bad. It’s hard to hold onto the frustrations of urban life when all my attention is focused on smacking a fuzzy, bouncy, green ball, and there is nothing that can replace the reward of building up a skill from nothing. In adult life the skills we build feel more meaningless than those we honed as children, for example, I am good at my job for others, but I am good at tennis just for me. Tennis might be the only sport I’ve ever played that I’m naturally bad at, and the only reason I don’t shank balls (as much) anymore is because of the hours spent playing and watching. That my body and mind can keep up is perhaps the greatest reward.

Rafa in China

My first neurologist told me, years ago, that I should work out. “When your body begins to shut down,” he said, “you should at least be in good shape.” He and I have long since parted ways, but his words continue to ring in my ears. For a while I did my best to run in the evenings, to find some kind of bearable exercise that didn’t succeed in making me feel weaker than I already felt. My new doctor is fond of saying that if she can get me to “old age” in good health then my illness won’t matter. At that age, Alissa, she says with her warm smile, everyone has something wrong with them. Fight for every ball, Rafa says, fight for every point. The reality is that I’m not fighting for balls or points, but I am fighting. I’m lucky that I can play and move so well, that I can hone a skill, and I am confident that one day, in the next couple of years, I’ll actually be a good player. Perhaps there will be a time, perhaps sooner than I would like, when my health problems, at least the psychological side of them, can’t be cured by tennis and Rafa, but for now it’s enough. Every time I smack a ball into the corner of the court I know it isn’t luck that got it there but hard work. I also know my body isn’t letting me down just yet.

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