By Aoun Jafarey
“Is this a bat?”
“No. It’s called a racket.”
“Can I play cricket with it?”
“Sure, you bat, I’ll bowl.”
I don’t remember if this is exactly how it started, but this was the conversation 3 year old me was having with my grandfather when he was showing me the last tennis racket he had ever bought. An Eminent, made in Sialkot, Pakistan. Wooden, strings worn out, small head, probably as tall as I was and about heavy as 2 of Federer’s frames. This is how I got into tennis.
My grandfather was a huge influence in my life, and perhaps the longest lasting influence he left on me is my love for this sport we call tennis. It didn’t come to me right away. How could it? Imran Khan wasn’t a tennis player, he was a cricketer. Pakistan hadn’t won the Davis Cup, Pakistan had just won the cricket world cup in 1992. I had just witnessed the final, I vaguely remember Ramiz Raja running after taking that final catch, the only people who are supposed to catch a ball in tennis are the ball kids so even that moment wasn’t relatable.
So what triggered my interest? Swinging an object at another object to attempt to send it into orbit. My coach was smart enough to realize that the child in front of him had no interest in tennis, his only interest was to try and hit a ‘six’, which is how you classify a shot in cricket in which the batsman is able to hit the ball over the boundary rope without it bouncing. How does that translate to tennis? Well, in tennis that’s called missing the court by a country mile. That is all I wanted to do, hit the ball as far away as possible. Little did I know how I was being baited by my coach at the time. We went from hitting it out of the park to “now hit the back wall” to “now hit the back wall and make sure the ball kid doesn’t stop it” to finally, “now make it bounce inside the baseline and hit the back wall without the ball kid being able to stop it”. This was the cricket and tennis hybrid that my coach used to bait me into eventually hitting the ball like a tennis player is supposed to.
I grew up playing on quick hard courts, the sort you’d never see on tour today. Big serve + forehand + slice was the way to go and it is what I learned. It worked great, I even managed to get a match win in the Pakistan Open as an 18 year old along with being ranked in the top 5 in my province on the men’s doubles side. I once had the honor of playing Aqeel Khan (https://www.atptour.com/en/players/aqeel-khan/k425/overview) within 2 years of his career worst beating he took at the hands of former AO finalist Fernando González (also one of my childhood inspirations); that I still think had angered him enough to give me the beating he did, a double breadstick, but you know what? As far as I’m concerned those were two perfect baguettes considering Aqeel was still ranked in the top 500 in the world at the time — and ranked #2 in Pakistan!
If I recall correctly that was the last time I played a national or provincial level tournament in Pakistan, it was all thanks to being inspired by my younger brother who wanted to play D1 at college which of course prompted me to raise my level. Neither of us ever got good enough to get to D1, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped trying to get better.
And how exactly is it that I keep trying to get better? Simple. I ask myself, what would Rafa or Novak do? And then just do what Tomic or Kyrgios would instead. Crazy as it sounds, for a club level player sometimes not taking yourself too seriously on the court is a great way to loosen up and play better. So as long as my body cooperates, I plan on holding onto my racket like my life depends on it.