Why do you play tennis? Is it for your health? Was there someone in your family who played and you simply went along for the ride? Did Borg, Connors, Sampras or Federer inspire you to pick up a racket? We all can think back and remember what instigated our love for the game of tennis. And what’s more, why do we stick with it? We could have easily gone on to the more “popular” sports such as baseball, football or basketball, which seem to be the only sports the American media is truly interested in and where the athletes are regarded as national “heroes”. But there was something about the sport of tennis that grabbed at us and wouldn’t let go. For whatever reason, it became your sport, the one you decided to pursue over all the others.
When I started middle school, I had to walk about a mile every day to get to school. On the way, there were two tennis courts, fenced in and not really kept that well. I would often find tennis balls that had been hit over the fence and were lying in a ditch between the courts and the road. If some people were playing on the courts, I would toss the ball back over the net for them. I’ll have to confess though, that if there were no one playing when I passed by, I often took home the balls I picked up. I wondered what it would be like to play the sport. My collection of old tennis balls steadily grew until it finally happened one day. When I was passing by one day, a family friend just happened to be playing on the court. He saw me and invited me in to play a bit. I’ll never forget the thrill of holding the racket, standing on the court, running towards the ball, feeling the racket hit the ball, hearing that sound of the ball hitting the racket, and actually getting the ball over the net. I was hooked. I had never felt that exhilarated when playing basketball or baseball. Tennis gave me a thrill and a challenge I had never experienced before.
After that, I played wherever and whenever I could. I started at home, finding an old badminton racket and hitting the balls I had found against the 5 ft wall in front of our house. I would hit until the cover of the balls were gone and it was just a rubber ball. Back and forth, all day long. I would occasionally hit too hard and the ball would go sailing into the neighbor’s yard. I can’t tell you how often I was yelled at for going in his yard to retrieve my ball. But I couldn’t get enough. My parent’s finally paid to let me go to a tennis club that was 30 minutes away by bike. I would finish school and rush over to the courts as soon as I could. I would find someone, anyone, in the club house to hit with. The club usually closed up at nine but I was often there until they finally told me to go home. If there was no one there, I would hit against the backboard wall they had set up behind the club house. I would go over there no matter what the weather. My parents often came looking for me when I stayed past the time I was supposed to come home. My dad would be pretty pissed off as he threw my bike into the back of the family station wagon and took me home, but he never ever told me to stop going to the tennis club.
After high school, I’ll have to admit I drifted away from tennis. With the school work and the two jobs I worked to help get myself through school, I didn’t have much choice. But I always watched it on TV; the Grand Slam tournaments, McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, and Wilander (my favorite player). After finishing college, I still didn’t play much; usually because of the lack of time or the lack of a hitting partner. Then Japan happened. I took a job at a small private school in southern Japan and when they discovered that I could play a little tennis, they asked me to start up a tennis team for the school. The first year, I thought maybe five or six kids would join the team, but I was shocked when over 60 kids signed up. We only had one “court”, a makeshift job that was on the corner of the soccer field. I had no idea what i was doing. I made it up as I went along, remembering what I did at that tennis club so long ago. I talked to other coaches, bought books on tennis coaching, and applied it all in my own way to make it fun and worthwhile for the kids. We gradually got better and have gotten to the point where we were one win away from making it to the national tournament.
I also finally found the time to join a tennis club again, playing once a week with people my age, not for competition but for exercise and just pain ‘ol fun. I had no idea about tennis when I started way back in high school, but I have come to realize that tennis is a sport that I will be able to play my entire life, that it is a sport that will help me stay healthy and that it is a sport that keeps me connected to my younger self, no matter how old I get. And I can’t express the thrill I experienced recently when I stood on court with my three-year old son and tossed him some balls and watched him running all over the place, discovering the sport for himself. It will be a special thrill for me some day when he beats the crap out of me in a match. I’m sure that day will come.
Why do you play tennis? What got you started in what I consider the greatest sport on the planet? I’d love to hear your story as well. Jack Groppel of the United States Professional Tennis Association made a list of 34 reasons to play tennis. The list is interesting and proves that tennis is truly a sport that can last a lifetime. But while I agree with everything he says, it all basically comes down to one thing. I just freakin’ love it more than any sport I have ever seen or tried. It’s the greatest sport in the world.