I played tennis for the first time on the first of May of last year. A day special in a few other ways too. As time and again one gets reminded by life that some of the best things in life are unplanned, serendipitous, found on paths not normally taken. So too with this new love. It was one of those just-like-that calls to go for a lesson or two, and see how I go.
As the year closed, I completed 100 sessions of playing and learning tennis. Beginner sessions. Not a big deal, but still, a personal milestone.
The love and joy for the playing of the sport kicked in from the first session itself. I couldn’t stop thinking about tennis or couldn’t wait for the next time I could play. And since then, the hour or two hours of each session has taken me to a beautiful, exhilarating space. Most of the time, with a happy grin on my face.
Take, for example, the following note on my blog from early June (a month into tennis):
“At the moment, tennis (May 1, Lesson day 1) has captured my imagination completely. It is exulting when the racket contacts with the ball with a beautiful sound, and so much better if it gets over the net. Such intensity of joy locked in so simple a thing! I ardently hope that my beginner enthusiasm will last long enough to pull me through the not-so-good days. There have been a few when the progress doesn’t seem good enough. or when I feel I can’t reset enough. It is still early days of what looks like a very long journey.”
This pretty much sums up how I feel about tennis. And I am glad to report that the excitement and the joy has not dimmed. Even a little bit. There are still those not-so-good days, but the beginner enthusiasm is undeterred. And that beautiful sound, is still the holy grail.
As to the 100 sessions, during the early days, there were no such goal. I was quite enthralled and smitten, and hence decided to give myself 100 sessions before I made up my mind on the sport – whether I still enjoyed it – enough time to let the frothy stuff fizzle out, and calmer, deeper emotion stay. I kept a journal/ diary of the sessions to note, record, track and process what I was feeling about the sport. Somewhere in October, realising that holidays and the distance from the sport was making my shots go haywire, I took a challenge to complete the 100 sessions before the year ended. I still had 33 to go, and 2 months. Not difficult, but very easy to slack off. Setting the goal allowed me to act – to go practise at the wall, and to play on days when I would have otherwise not bothered. No goal, no dream, no action.
Even after the 100 sessions, I am still at the beginner level. I started green. Sort of a blank slate. (I am in my mid-thirties. I am active, but not really super active. I can run, bike, swim. In terms of racket sports, I played a lot of badminton many, many years ago. And that’s about it.) As for tennis, I can now return well on forehand, backhand, and on good days, I can volley. I am getting there on serves (still practising a beginner serve), and my greatest joy in the game is long rallies, if and when I manage to get them. I haven’t been able to enter the game mindset, yet. When I play, I strive for two things – (a) to ensure that the ball reaches the other side and (b) that it can still be in play for a bit longer. I love the practice, the drills, and happy to return on double bounces or balls clearly heading out, as long as I can attempt a shot.
Before these 100 tennis sessions, the only time I spent thinking so much of tennis was while reading David Foster Wallace. I couldn’t write this piece without thinking of DFW. Here is him explaining how to hold the tennis racket:
“Please look. You’ll be shown exactly once how to hold it. This is how to hold it. Just like this. Forget all the near-Eastern-slice-backhand-grip bafflegab. Just say Hello is all. Just shake hands with the calfskin grip of the stick. This is how to hold it. The stick is your friend. You will become very close.
Grasp your friend firmly at all times. A firm grip is essential for both control and power.”
What I takeaway
While I spent these hours on the court over the last few months playing tennis, there have been so many more hours off the court when tennis has inadvertently been occupying my mind-space. When you are a beginner to a new sport or any new pursuit, you often notice more, or see more. There is noticeable progress week on week, and there is so much that one can learn and takeaway from every session, which, once you have spent years with something, and become very habitual, is difficult to see or notice. In that sense, I am at a beautiful point in this relationship with tennis.
For me, there are a few things which sort of, stand out, and which I don’t want to forget, and some of which transcend tennis and apply to life too. Listing them here:
#1. Reset. Reset. Reset. The most important lesson of all. I’ll borrow words from DFW again to stress the importance of this cliché, “Like most clichés of sport, this is profound”. This reminder to reset on every ball. Irrespective of its position in rally. Irrespective of how all your previous shots may have been landing at random places. Irrespective of everything. Treat every ball as the first ball. It is not cumulative until you make it so in your head. That each ball is an independent event (of sorts). Not easy, this wiping clean your mind of previous bad shots or the length of the rally. But it is what you are to do. There is just you and the ball. Reset, play the ball. Reset, play the ball. Again, as the first ball.
One of the most useful lessons that applies to life pretty seamlessly. To leave off carrying over of emotions from hour to hour; instead, to reset, and live in, and make the most of the present.
#2. Complete your shots. Execute the follow through. Or commit fully. Always. To not change or let go of the shot midway. To see it through, completely.
I realise this has something to do with how mind and body communicate. Even before you consciously register it, the body is already carrying out the mind’s command. There seems to be split-second lag in your conscious thoughts. Normally, this doesn’t make much difference in day-to-day life, but in tennis, where the racket and ball contact is just split second, and a little change here (in the way you contact), magnifies manifold there (where the ball lands), if your brain is already saying that you didn’t hit well, your body starts pulling back and doesn’t complete the follow through, resulting in a poor shot even before you have completed the shot or even before you register all that has happened. It is a vicious cycle.
The way out is to train your body to follow through completely every shot irrespective of what your mind tells you. Execute the shot without changing it midway. Make the habit an impediment for the brain to takeover on the not-good shots. Or on quick shots as you volley. For practice shots, if I practice and look at the racket rather than where I direct the ball, I do much better since the eyes keep my body in the right stance rather than already pulling away from the shot.
This about following through, committing fully and making a good habit an impediment for an impulse to take over. Things to remember and apply elsewhere too.
#3. The paradox of serve. The looser the grip, the faster the serve. This took a while to sink in. Trying to hit the ball hard with racket landed me nowhere, just tensed up my grip. And then when this realisation kicked in, that hold the racket soft and loose, and let it just whip or lash at the ball, not really hit it, I saw my serve travel much faster than ever before (no matter where it lands at the moment). It was a wonderful discovery. There is physics and maths there, as in the rest of tennis. But the speed that my serve achieved made me wonder about the hidden paradoxes in everyday life. Where logic or surface sense tells you something, but you think and explore deeper and come out with a 90 -180 degree direction change. That headspace, when your mind is open and is able to well contemplate contradictions or paradoxes – giving enough space to both aspects of the coin.
It reminded me of a passage from one of my recent reads by Borges (This Craft of Verse), where he mentions Chestertonian moods as one of the very best moods to be in. Chesterton is also regarded as the ‘prince of paradox’. Quoting the following from Borges’ book here:
“…I would like to say that we make a very common mistake when we think that we’re ignorant of something because we are unable to define it. If we are in a Chestertonian mood (one of the very best moods to be in, I think), we might say that we can define something only when we know nothing about it.”
#4. You play better when you focus on your own game. Another of those Chestertonian paradoxes. My coach gave me feedback on how the quality of my shots was different in rallies and on practice/fed balls. His point being that my shots are much more confident and complete when I don’t care for rallies. When I care too much, I end up changing shots mid-way hoping that the ball will land closer to the rally partner, not following through completely, or jerky movements rather than the smooth flow that tennis should be. But when I just focus during the practice and complete my shots, they are smoother and I am more likely to hear that elusive perfect contact sound.
As soon as one lets go of caring for the outcome, and just plays the best without reference to the situation, one plays so much better. The ball lands where it should for the rally partner. Hence, paradoxically, resulting in longer rallies.
# all the rest. Apart from these cliches and paradoxes that I discovered for myself, there are other things which are very specific to where I am in the learning journey. Things perhaps out of this short time and space, wouldn’t even appear to me. Recording those transient lessons here:
- There is enough time (before you need to contact with the ball). May be this is a beginner problem. May be this is specifically my problem. When one has not played enough shots to give the right judgement. But this has been important lesson for me, and took a while before the number of balls into the net reduced significantly. This – to patiently wait for the right time to hit the ball rather than rushing into the ball. To just get ready and wait. Patience.
- Try not to be stuck in the middle. Either volley or get back to the base line. Do not be caught in the middle where you can’t play either shot well. After every hit, check where you are and make sure you are at the right place so that you have the best shot.
- Practice and practice – the right technique, the stance, the angles, the ten things to remember to get a good serve. But then when you play, forget everything and let your body takeover. Stop the mind from chattering. Just the ball and reset. Ball and reset.
An early stage of a long journey. I feel grateful to stumble on tennis this way, and to find the time and space in my life for learning it. The idea is to continue on the journey, while keeping the beginner enchantment and enough space for detours or paths, new lessons and thoughts.
Every session is a privilege and an exercise in delight. I hope there are many more of them.