Tennis Brought Me Back to Earth

By Isabel Wing

 The tennis courts in Sunland, a suburb in the mountains of Los Angeles, are set between a baseball diamond and a dry, unweeded field. A busy five-lane road surrounds the park and provides a backdrop of sirens and revved engines. The 210 freeway thunders with trucks and cars a mere block away. My father would drag me to the courts when I was small to watch him play, spinning his racquet in one hand and yelling from the baseline, “hey, watch THIS serve!” only to smack the ball into the net.

We watched tennis year-round in my house, and every school vacation was marked with a different Grand Slam event. I was too young to understand the rules and reason in the game, but my parents’ mutual love for the sport brought us to the couch for hours at a time. They loved Roger Federer, who had only just begun to step into his supremacy, and like the rest of the world, we watched in awe. Coming out of the Sampras era, they were eager for a new dominance in the modern millennium. Their enthusiasm spread into me and I wanted to try the sport myself.

With much frustration, my father tried to teach me how to play tennis. I was tiny with wrists so thin, it was impossible to hit a traditional one-handed forehand. Without thinking, I held the forehand with both hands in a backwards grip, and found I was able to hit the ball with more strength and accuracy. My father insisted that if I continued, a one-handed forehand was a necessity. I was stubborn and refused, so he fed balls to my strangely gripped two-hander anyway.

The weekends were spent at the Burbank Tennis Club and a few summers at a camp in Santa Barbara. I wasn’t improving — outside of lessons, I avoided practice and spent complained to my mother that I had no hitting partner my age, and playing against my father was unfair with him being stronger and more competitive than me. But the truth was I had no motivation to get better. I lacked the natural ability the other kids had, especially the commitment. My bony, four-foot-tall body could not compete with the athletic teenagers, and though coaches tried to break the habit of my forehand, I had limited reach and hit with zero spin. I was fast enough to get to every ball, but had no finesse. Each match left me bored and irritated, and I never looked forward to the next one. Playing tennis never brought me as much joy as watching it. I was so focused on movement and keeping my eyes on the ball — there was no thrill that matched when I saw Federer and Venus glide around the television screen like powerful gazelles. Sitting on the couch for hours, my heart would fill with emotion and exhilaration. On court, I was just tired. I quit playing before my thirteenth birthday.

Tennis fandom runs deep on both sides of my family. My mother’s aunt in Los Angeles was a talented player, and though she was never a professional, she was friends and mixed doubles partners with Pancho Gonzales. They would hit together in Exposition Park. In 1956, my father’s parents made an unexpected stop at a hotel on their honeymoon in Cape Cod just so they could watch the U.S. Open Final between Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall. Their five children grew up watching tennis with the same fervor. In 1975, the family went on vacation in New Brunswick, and one night they piled into a motel room to watch Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors go head-to-head in the Wimbledon final. The announcer on television stated that the odds on Ashe winning in straight sets were 46 to 1. My grandfather said, “Well, if we were there, we would have to have some of THAT action.” Ashe won in four. 

In 2017, I was in Ontario for my grandfather’s funeral. On the day of the Australian Open final, we woke at 3:00 in the morning to watch Roger and Rafa battle for the 35th time. Roger hadn’t made a grand slam final in years, and no one expected him to reach the final, much less win it. All of us were Fed fans; even my 87-year-old grandmother awoke with the rest of her children to watch. When Roger was down in the fourth set, poised for an agonizing defeat, my uncle went to bed, saying he couldn’t bear to watch Roger lose. When Roger went up a break in the fifth, we woke him. “You may want to see this.”

The love for tennis followed me all the way to art school on the east coast. My sleep schedule revolved around tournaments. My roommates often complained about my muffled noises on the other side of the room during a late night match, the room completely dark except for the glow of a laptop screen. After the 2015 U.S. Open final, I shrieked so loudly when Federer lost to Djokovic that people came to check if my life was in danger. No one at my small liberal arts college followed sports, and people found it strange that I listened to tennis radio streams in between classes. There was a tennis club on campus and there was even a court, but when I asked what they thought of the Big Three rivalries, they said they had never heard of them. 

As I went through school, the severe depression and anxiety I was diagnosed with in my teens began to deepen in ways I couldn’t understand. I suffered a humiliating breakup that left me clinging for control over my life and my mind, which was not helped by the stark Vermont winters and my usual predilection for solitude. Daily life was a struggle, and just leaving my room paralyzed me. Time amongst other students in the dining hall would send me spiraling. Apart from my therapist, I hardly spoke to anyone. My anger and loneliness swirled into wrenching anxiety attacks, and most of the year was spent on my dorm room floor. Nothing helped me cope, and I was running out of options. While lamenting to my father about how miserable I was, he gave me a piece of advice.

“Everything is tennis,” he said. 

He didn’t mean that my life was like tennis, or that I could beat my way out of social situations with a racquet. He meant for me to use tennis as a way of coping; a distraction from the emotional and social hell that was my early twenties. “Whenever something happens, just think about tennis.”

It was a clever way to distract me, and my therapist agreed. When anxiety settled into my chest and tightened around my lungs, I would watch a video of classic Federer moments or reread “String Theory” by David Foster Wallace. If I was losing myself to rage, weighed down by my insecurities, or felt immobilized and numb, I forced myself to think about tennis. There were points I could replay in my head when nothing else could bring me back to earth. Sitting in the dining hall, I read through the latest tennis news, taking note of every detail so as to ingrain the information in my mind. At a table for one, I listened to tennis podcasts and texted my father about players’ chances in the current tournaments. In the evenings, when it was harder to block intrusive thoughts, I would sit on my floor cross legged, breathing deeply, whispering tennis statistics over and over as though it were a meditation chant. It was the healthiest comfort zone I had. 

Federer prepares to rake a backhand pass against Tomáš Berdych at Wimbledon, 2006. Screenshot: Wimbledon

During a late night session of mindless scrolling, I decided I needed to buy a tennis racquet. I looked up how to measure my grip size, and ordered the cheapest one. After it arrived, it stayed in the box for weeks. Winter was just about to take over in Vermont, but there were still outdoor tennis classes every Saturday morning on campus. I could see the edges of the courts from my second-story window, surrounded by reddening maple trees. On the last day of autumn, I summoned the courage to go. There weren’t any students, just a few kids from town and some of my own professors. The coaches thought my forehand grip was hilarious, but they didn’t make me hit one handed. I hit a few drills, attempted some serves, and played feeble rallies with my literature professor. That one hour spent in the cold sun on a surface I hadn’t set foot on in a decade stirred something in me. The coaches suggested I attend the sessions in town. 

I started going to the indoor tennis courts twice a week. Once the streets were snow-covered and the temperature dropped below ten degrees, I was the only one there, so I got a private lesson for the price of a group. The pulse of forehand and backhand drills was formulaic and I could fall into the rhythm with ease, each strike of the ball clearing my mind. Slowly, I started to get better. At 22, I was no longer a weak and skinny kid who couldn’t control the ball. I channeled all the fury I had for myself and the world into overhead smashes. I couldn’t keep my mind from going to dangerous places sometimes, but I could think about the racquet in my hand, my eyes on the ball, and the vibration of the strings rippling down the neck and into my body. After bad days, I drove to those courts and hit alone while the freezing winds rattled the domed roof. 

The familiar sounds of a match; the firm and defiant smack of a ball, the slip and whine of rubber shoes on concrete, the rising and crashing wave of the crowd as players rush to return; each detail was a comforting hand on my shoulder, an exhalation, a reminder that I was still in control of my life. Even when a match becomes so chaotic, so outrageous that the French government can’t shut it down, there is precision and beauty in tennis that gives me instant relief. Even when I am screaming and crying because Roger lost.  

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