This year, June is turning out to be the super-star month of the Tennis calendar. With the French Open having concluded just over a week ago, replete with stunning performances on the Paris terre battue, the Wimbledon Tennis Championships is all set to get underway on June 28, on the historic grass courts of England. If the French Open was anything to go by, Wimbledon is sure to be just as irresistible, nerve-wrecking and inspiring. That’s the beauty of tennis. It has lessons for everybody: the players, the fans, the coaches, the families and the ball kids. Even those who don’t play tennis can gain a wealth of knowledge from the sport- such is its nature. After all, tennis is much more than a game. It’s an entire school of Philosophy in itself. It is almost a parable of everyday living, especially suited to our current times. Undoubtedly, every sport has its moments of inspiration, fairytale triumphs, heartbreaking losses and mind-blowing tales of human perseverance. In Tennis, these moments unfurl on the court with such regularity that it is impossible to not learn from them.
In the recently concluded French Open, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia reached her first ever Grand Slam final, on her 52nd attempt. Yes, you read that right. In her article for The Guardian, Tumaini Carayol informs us that “no player has taken longer to reach their first major final than Pavlyuchenkova in her 52nd event”. Similarly, in the men’s side of the draw, Spanish veteran Pablo Andújar scripted a thrilling tale of his own. Prior to the 2021 French Open, Andújar had never recorded a single victory against a top-5 player in his career, since turning professional in 2004. However, he played some brilliant and intelligent tennis in his first round encounter against World No.4 and clay-court force Dominic Thiem, ultimately ousting him in a valiantly fought match that went to five sets. Pavlyuchenkova and Andújar are two testimonies amongst innumerable others that speak volumes about the importance of perseverance, determination and steely resilience in tennis. Even a life of considerable happiness and success requires the same set of traits. It’s not easy to navigate murky waters on a boat of salt, afterall.
Tennis is predominantly an individual sport. Despite the fact that the players’ coaches, families and teams play an indispensable role in preparing for the games, once on the court, the tennis player is left to fend for himself/herself. Unlike team sports, there is no captain taking decisions, and there is no team camaraderie to benefit from. On court, the player has to take important decisions, make alterations to the game plan, read the opponent and open up the court as much as possible. Often, all this has to happen very, very quickly. Tennis demands superhuman mental abilities to complement its physical demands. Perhaps, this is what makes the sport quite brutal. In the French Open Men’s Singles Final, Novak Djokovic was two sets down against Stefanos Tsitsipas, a player who is famous for his philosophical and matter-of-fact bent of mind. Tsitsipas was also having an incredible clay court season. Towards the end of the match, Djokovic emerged as the winner. While much has been attributed to Djokovic’s champion attitude, his mental strategy was what stood out particularly. As one of the tennis experts pointed out, Djokovic managed to convince Tsitsipas, whose form, movements and hitting were sublime, that he was going to lose. Once Djokovic broke Tsitsipas’ mental reserve, there was no looking back for the former. This complex mental process of decision making, backing yourself up and fighting till the very end is a very difficult thing to do, for the human mind is an unpredictable thing. Yet, often, as in tennis, this attitude is what gets most of us through our darkest times in life, this attitude is what helps us triumph over adversities. We are our greatest cheerleaders.
Tennis, like other sports, requires great passion. This unyielding passion for tennis has propelled many greats of the game to achieve feats that border on the impossible. Andy Murray, the former World No.1, underwent a hip surgery that nearly derailed his career. He recently won his first comeback grass-court match in nearly three years, at the Queen’s Club Championships. When interviewed about the same, a visibly emotional Murray had this to say: “It’s just that I really love playing tennis”. The Spanish legend, Rafael Nadal, once revealed in a GQ interview that he always carries painkillers during tournaments, as he feels physical from the numerous injuries he has sustained during his career. Yet, in every pre-match and post-match conference, his hunger remains the same: “I just want to fight tomorrow, give myself another chance to play”. His never-say-die attitude has shaped him into one of the best fighters in tennis, and in sport. Of all the surfaces, the clay courts are considered the hardest to play on, primarily due to the challenges and injury-risks they pose to the players. Subsequently, the French Open, officially known as Roland-Garros, is widely regarded as being the toughest Grand Slam to win. And Rafael Nadal, his physical limitations notwithstanding, has won the tournament 13 times. This feat is, in probability, the greatest in sport. Passion for the game is what inspires the gruelling hours of practise, training and sacrifice that every tennis player puts in. Passion for something is what enlivens life and infuses it with purpose. And tennis players teach us that passion is nothing without effort and hardwork.
This year, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) revealed an interesting statistic: the various WTA tournaments thus far in the year have yielded 10 different winners. In the women’s draw, there is rampant uncertainty. There are many shock defeats, and the favourites to win often tumble out surprisingly early. With the exception of Serena Williams, the other female tennis players have struggled to maintain their winning streak and defend titles. While this indicates the diversity of talent in women’s tennis, it also rues the lack of consistency and singular domination. Uncertainty is a common feature in sport. Of the many lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, embracing uncertainty is the headlining one. We have collectively collided headlong with uncertainty, and now it's up to us to overcome it, and tennis can help us understand it.
Human beings are social animals. We are bound by a need for company and society. Tennis, albeit a solitary sport on court, is a rather communal one, off it. Many players travel with their families, and share beautiful bonds with their coaching team. Tales of friendship and sportsmanship are abundant on the tour. Add to this mix: the fans. Taken together, tennis is a sport that embodies the importance of society, and the indispensability of others’ sacrifices.
Given everything that the players have to endure, Tennis is an extremely emotional sport. We see players getting angry on court, we see players breaking down after a very difficult loss. The 2012 Australian Open Final was played for 5 hours and 53 minutes. Watch the video of the award ceremony, and you’ll see it for yourself. But, despite their superhuman abilities, tennis players are also vulnerable. Recently, players like Iga Swiatek and Barbora Krejcikova have opened up about the need and importance of working with sports psychologists, to help them deal with expectations, cope after difficult losses, and navigate the mental landmines of the game. Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open has sparked a movement over the need for tennis players to prioritise their mental health. Dominic Thiem, who was on a swansong for a greater part of his career, is now dealing with an abysmal 2021 season. Rafael Nadal, despite being the fighter that he is, has withdrawn from Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics 2020 to recover from a very difficult spell of mental fatigue, post a very physically brutal clay court season. Life can become very unfair, hard and miserable at times. If it can happen to some of the greatest tennis players, it can happen to anyone. Choosing to bounce back is what matters. For instance, take Roger Federer. Close to 40, he missed the entire 2020 tennis season due to a surgery. Yet, he is back, roaring to compete at Wimbledon 2021, giving it his all. There is a saying that the best and most motivated tennis players often “leave their entire bodies on court” during a match. Maybe, trying our best, no matter what, is sometimes the best thing to do. And it's more than enough.
Finally, let’s talk about the glory moments in tennis. These are the moments that make everything worth the struggle. Fans are still rooting for Serena Williams to equal Margaret Court’s record for the most number of Grand Slams won. When Rafael Nadal wins at the French Open or Novak Djokovic wins at the Australian Open, the fans feel like they’ve won too. Sometimes, just watching a match is such a delight. The joy at the end of blood, sweat and tears. The light at the end of the tunnel, the summit reached after a long climb. The happy moments are what we live for, and it's true for each and every one of us. Sometimes, tennis matches are hard. Sometimes, life is hard and unfair. But, there is also love, victory and happiness. There are people and there is purpose. In tennis, there is a possibility of winning till the player decides to give up. Why should this be any different in real-life situations?
Tennis is filled with passion and humility, victory and defeat, hardwork and injuries, good days and bad days, certainties and uncertainties, chances won and chances lost. Tennis is very much like life, and life is very much like tennis. Like the players, we are all playing out our lives, fighting at every moment, on courts that only we can see. We win some, we lose some. At the end, it is the courage to continue that matters.
“Champions keep playing until they get it right” - Billie Jean King.
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