I just got blown off the court.
And I’m not happy about it.
Taking every day of my four decades on this earth into consideration, (O.K., four decades and some very spare change), my win-loss stats are backlit in a much more flattering hue than the numbers I’ve posted as of late. Think megapixel versus rabbit ears.
But now, instead of living out a Technicolor tennis dream, I’m that quasi-rodent looking sheepishly over its shoulder as I limp off the screen, er, court.
For a large portion of what I consider to be a fairly short life (wishful thinking is an important component of aging gracefully), I was a good tennis player. O.K., a really good tennis player. I competed in USTA-sanctioned tournaments from the day I could lug a Hello Kitty backpack to school, held a respectable state ranking year-after-year, and then, at the apex of my junior career, quit.
While my high school teammates went on to play for their respective colleges, I took another path, joined a sorority, and played Russian roulette with a fake I.D.
Not only did I walk away from a sport that I excelled in, I did so with absolutely no appreciation for the skills I possessed or the work that went into getting there (not to mention the money that could have gone toward buying my father the cardinal-red sports car of his dreams that was instead dumped into lessons, clinics, and camps. Sorry Dad).
I was so ambivalent toward tennis that I completely upchucked the third set of the state semi-finals my junior year just to get to a Prince concert on time. I’m surprised my partner, Susan, who was playing her heart out in a match that we were supposed to lose but could have won if I hadn’t been so intent on partying like it was 1999, didn’t kill me on the spot.
George Bernard Shaw told us that youth is wasted on the young. But he never said why.
Fast forward to last year, and I found myself itching to get back on the court. This sudden desire might have been tied to the fact that I was turning 40, the kids were finally in school all day, and I had way too much time on my hands. I also could have been suffering from some type of nostalgic identity crisis fueled by my decision to join Facebook. Either way, I was ready to announce my comeback tour, complete with pyrotechnics and huge bangs.
So after a twenty-two year hiatus, I dusted off my Red Head racquet, strapped on my favorite lucky visor, and hit the courts.
Expect for one problem.
Everything I took for granted as a result of clocking countless hours of court time as a child was gone, and no matter how strong my desire, my strokes simply weren’t there.
Over the two-plus decades I carelessly chose to sit out, tennis moved on without me. Shots I assumed to be ingrained in my muscle memory were nowhere to be found, and I wanted them back. Immediately. (Patience is the most overrated virtue on the planet, because while you wait, inert and immobile, for one thing to happen, something completely unanticipated occurs. Like back pain.)
My yearning to regain what I had so thoughtlessly abandoned years before was real, and life responded in the only appropriate way. She said no. I was looking back in an effort to move forward, a path that can be circuitous at best, misleading, and full of dead ends.
As I sat courtside icing my hip, lamenting my fate, and wondering what the artist formerly known as a symbol was up to, I remembered a theory first introduced by Anders Ericsson and later made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. The concept, at its most basic level, states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. Do you want to sell a painting? Put in your 10,000 hours. Write a book? Ditto. Start winning tournaments instead of losing them? Same answer.
Even though I had invested my 10,000 hours two times over and more, that era was gone. I needed to forget the past, start over, and renew the process of logging my time on the court. Again.
So I went to work.
I spent the first couple of months learning how to change a sea level stroke that was at one time hard, fast, and predictable to a high altitude game that was sort of passable on a good day, not quite as quick, and semi-erratic. I allocated the spring toward focusing on the net because my formerly solid groundstrokes were as unstable as avalanche territory on a sunny day. I re-engineered my serve.
I bought a new racquet, shoes, and clothes, threw my racquet at the fence in frustration, picked it up and threw it at my car, switched racquets, changed my shoes, loosened my grip, bought more clothes, restrung the second racquet, gave the first one away, and bought even more clothes. I was determined to at least look like a competitor even if I wasn’t playing like one.
And I kept clocking my hours, one horrendous forehand at a time.
Today, although I’m not where I want to be (and still, at times, get wiped completely off the court), I’m making progress, and I’m not looking in the rearview mirror to get ahead. The fundamentals of the game I used to know are still there, and I’m building on them to construct something new. What’s gone is gone, but the future’s ahead: bright, shiny, and staring me in the face. And I’m willing to work. Hard. I’m playing at a respectable level, and even though I lose more than I’d like, I win matches too. More importantly, I appreciate those wins, much more than the confident yet naïve little girl who walked off the court so many years ago without a second thought.
I wish I could have talked to her back then. If I had, I would have told her to pick a different night to go to a concert.