Life with a smile: Getting back to tennis after a 10-year hiatus

Published 6:05 am Saturday, June 16, 2018

I stepped onto a tennis court for the first time in about a decade last week, and the experience was both humbling and exhilarating.

Once upon a time, tennis was a big part of my life and my identity. I played in high school and college, managing to cling desperately to the bottom spot on the team for my entire collegiate career, and I absolutely loved it. The feel of the ball coming off the strings, the strategy of the game, the cute skirts and stylish bandanas I always wore — I enjoyed it all. I continued to play into my mid-20s but then I got pregnant, life got busy and somehow 10 years passed. Funny how that happens.

I’d been telling myself for a couple years it would be fun to play again, but I was nervous about putting myself out there. Not all athletic pursuits are “like riding a bicycle,” and I had serious reservations about my ability to so much as connect with the ball after all those years, much less make it go where I wanted.

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Thus I decided that, before I sought out community players, I needed to shake off the rust with someone who was being paid to be supportive and encouraging while also kicking my butt. I scheduled a lesson with one of the Centre College coaches.

The designated date arrived and I strode cheerfully onto the court wearing snazzy new shoes, my freshly re-strung racket at the ready.

Lord. Have. Mercy.

Within 10 seconds, I was sweating (the 90-degree weather may have been a factor there). Within 10 minutes, I was panting and out of breath (the extra 20 pounds I picked up in the pursuit of motherhood may have been a factor there).

Admittedly, I have never been strong in the cardio department, even when I was in my prime. As a teenager, I was able to blame exercise-induced asthma for my failings. Now I place the blame squarely on the softness of my couch, the deliciousness of chocolate and the existence of my three children.

Not only was I wildly out of shape, but I quickly discovered that the powers that be had changed my sport during my 10-year hiatus. No joke. Everything about my stance, grip and instincts was apparently wrong. When I hesitantly mentioned this to the coach, he asked when I had graduated from college and then confirmed: “they” really were teaching things differently now. Gee, thanks.

Despite feeling a bit like a racket-wielding hippopotamus on the court, it turns out that age does bring some benefits when it comes to playing tennis. I’m way easier on myself now. Certainly the stakes were lower — no points being kept, no team to disappoint, no glory to be gained — but I’m different now, too. I’ve grown into a more chill version of my college self, thank goodness.

I was fiercely competitive in college, which can carry with it a dark side of perfectionism and self-criticism. I didn’t “do” failure back then. Get good grades, be the teacher’s favorite, impress the coach, win the game, never falter, never blink. Losing was hard on me and I invested too much, emotionally, into the game at times.

This time around, my mistakes made me laugh. My wild serves, clunky frame shots and, yes, complete misses no longer had the power to stress me out. After a bit, I did start to find my groove again and the solid thwack of a well-hit ball still makes my heart happy.

There was one other big advantage to playing tennis as a fully established grownup: After I staggered off the court, I rewarded myself for all my hard work with a frozen daiquiri at Plank. Cheers to getting back in the game!