Racquetman

Over the past week, I’ve rediscovered and acted on my desire to play tennis again, thanks in large part to finding a hitting partner who was willing to play as well.

The first time I learned how to count score in tennis was the Wimbledon 2005 Final. I was in Pune then, and Federer played Roddick that year. All of us watched that match as a family, and it was my chikappa who taught me how to keep score. Eventually, it became a game, where after the point was done, I would yell out what the score should be and we’d confirm if I was right by using the television graphics. A large portion of this was quite confusing to me, because the multiplication tables I learned for 15 had 15-30-45, while scores went 15-30-40.

I only properly began to follow the sport once we moved to India though. The 2008 Wimbledon tournament was the first sporting event I saw after our move here. Given the community I reside in is filled with tennis fans, it was easy to grasp why the sport was so beautiful and fun to watch. I understood how points were constructed, and Uncles routinely provided commentary on matches that had recently transpired when we met up.

I can’t place a finger on when, or how, I picked up the sport. Before moving to India, we bought a set of tennis racquets because the community we moved to had tennis courts, and we wanted to be able to join into any games that happened. This was definitely my parents’ idea. The community here was so small, that initially there were only 4 of us who were the same age. 2 of us, who ended up becoming classmates a few years later, used to go around to the tennis courts and mess around at half court with these colourful tennis balls I had at the time. We had no idea how to play “technically”, but we got to run around and hit a ball across from each other, which was extremely enjoyable. What stood out beyond that for us was the satisfaction of being able to craft our own rules – the one I clearly remember is that we refused to follow the Singles Court dimensions, and included the Doubles lines for where all we could hit the ball.

It was probably in the middle of Grade 8 that my parents purchased a tennis racquet for me and decided to put me for tennis coaching. The program ran within my community, and was run by a very close friend of my parents, so it was fairly easy to get going. From the beginning of 2011, then, my weekends were filled with an hour or two of tennis each morning, and then an hour or two of basketball. It was a fantastic 3 and a half year stretch of playing the game with a Coach. The Uncle who ran the program was one of the first people I actually played with in the community – my parents told him how much I loved field hockey, and we had met up twice and played at the end of his lane, passing the ball to each other and dribbling around, which was rather fun.

I hated waking up early on the weekends, so my mother was faced with the task of helping me beat my inertia. I was fine once I got out of bed, but that struggle was real. I think coaching started at 7:30AM or something, which was an absurdly early time for me on a Saturday morning, especially given how after piano classes on Fridays, I’d only go to bed around 10:30PM, or 11PM – which was very late back in the day. I look back at that time now and wonder how Uncle had the motivation to wake up early in the morning to coach kids for tennis. I think what I’m struck by the most is how much he must’ve enjoyed it, and enjoyed being active, to wake up so early on his weekends.

Naturally, coaching brought with it some seriousness. When I started off, I used to lose to younger kids who had been playing for longer – something I disliked. Eventually, those small things started becoming goals: I need to be able to actually rally with this person, forget playing with them competitively. I found inspiration from this boy who was in Grade 4 at the time (he’s now graduated from high school), who played (and still plays) with his dad really frequently – almost every other evening, I would say. He was ridiculously consistent with his stroke-making, and it took very, very long to either fatigue him, by which point, you were too fatigued to think straight.

Tennis also taught me how to be really patient. There was this one kid who excelled at hitting deep, high, top-spin shots, so the ball would clear the net at an absurd height, bounce, and then spin even higher – taking away, for a player of my skill level, any opportunity to control the ball on return. I’d try to hit the ball with a lot of speed to eliminate any chance they had to return it similarly, but mess up because of a lack of control. The other way I learned patience was in picking up tennis balls after the exercises. There were usually just 2 or 3 of us in our age group playing, so there was a lot of balls to collect to get the chance to play again. That was a slow, painful process. Being lazy to bend down and pick them up didn’t make it any easier.

My fitness level, which is not very great at all, always betrayed me. I never worked consciously on improving my stamina, hoping it would happen along the way, but, as I know now, that doesn’t happen. I remember losing inter-house matches at school in Grade 10 despite having gone for coaching for 2 years and feeling terrible about it, but trying to laugh it off. It was only a year after that, where I managed to play some other tournament hosted by the coaching group I attended, and do reasonably okay at that, in the presence of my parents, that I felt like I had made progress with the sport.

It’s around then that I gave it up. Academics and my other extracurricular passions became a convenient excuse at school. At University, life was a convenient excuse – I enjoyed other things a little more than I thought I’d enjoy tennis. I came home several times, and throughout my life at that point, I had always played a team sport and an individual racquet sport, but at University, I didn’t do either properly. I never carried racquets back, so I had no external motivation either. One evening in third year I played with a friend of mine, but naturally, with the break, I was abysmal.

Naturally, picking it up again this week has felt really good. I’m getting to spend time with a friend of mine, and getting some exercise in while I’m at it. We’re both navigating the art of recovering something embedded deep in our muscle memory (this is especially true of the serve, because phrases like the trophy position, pronation, and the continental grip are stuck in our brains), and messing up terribly on some occasions. We’re having fun though, and that’s worth every bit of the time we spend on court. To paraphrase Elton John, “Oh no no, I’m a racquet man

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