Day 10: Finding my Forehand

My healthiest obsession is tennis. Love of racket sports runs deep in my family. My father was a champion player of Rackets, a now defunct game that was a cross between squash and racquetball. It was he who first introduced me to tennis probably around the age of seven. He issued a challenge to his sons around that time: he would give $100 to whichever of them could beat him before age 50. In one of his proudest moments, my brother Steve won the prize just before the deadline expired. I have issued the same challenge to my children, but I have moved the goal post (age 60) and increased the prize ($500). I’ll keep you updated on how it goes.

When people look at me they probably see more of a football player than a tennis one. Indeed, football was my primary sport in high school. But blocking D-linemen and covering punts held limited interest for me. My football coaches dubiously dubbed me “a gentle giant.” Despite my size, I was the #1 player on the JV tennis team my freshman and sophomore years before finally getting called up to the big leagues for 11th and 12th. We had a decent team, with a Panamanian firebrand at #1 who would break rackets about as frequently as he would break serve. I played roughly #4 on the ladder for most of high school in singles, but I frequently paired with that top player at #1 doubles.

I think I have three main strengths on a tennis court. My serve has a nice combination of pace and spin, and my kick second serve, one of the most sneakily important shots in the game, is both consistent and aggressive. I am able to loop my technically sound two-handed backhand deep in the court, change direction, and hit my spots. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am competitive to a fault. Tennis is one of the few areas in my life where I overflow with confidence, and this self-belief and competitive fire has helped me prevail against many superior opponents.

But I also have some glaring weaknesses. My forehand, most players’ greatest weapon, is my biggest liability. I have a fairly extreme grip and must time my forehand nearly perfectly to hit it well. When I really go after it, I can hit some screaming winners, but I spray it way too often, forcing me to hold back and leaving me vulnerable to counterattacks. For many years my fitness was a bit suspect, but I’m working on that. Moreover, I used to take inordinate pleasure beating people who underestimated their roly-poly opponent.

I have recently been musing about how my tennis game mirrors my strengths and weaknesses in life. I have always struggled with my forehand both on and off the court. While most who know me would say I’m loud and gregarious, I’m painfully shy when meeting new people. Calling people on the phone has always been my Waterloo. In high school I had to beg my friends to order pizza, and I once lived with a broken string for over a month because I was afraid to call the stringer. I hate imposing on people and asking for favors and almost never use the imperative voice even when it’s called for. The forehand requires you to catch the ball on the rise, but I have always lacked confidence when pursuing my goals. I need to be willing to put myself out there, and yes fail at times to really live up to my potential. This is something I know I need to work on, and I have already begun the process by intending to hang out my shingle and start an educational consultancy of my own.

My backhand, meanwhile, has always served me well. When the ball is hit into my court or someone has imposed on me, I almost always rise to the occasion and parry it back with interest. My ability to grit my teeth and grind things out has always been a defining trait. Even my trademark snarky comments are often delivered as backhanded compliments.

There are lots of other things I love about tennis. It is a zero sum game; there is always a winner and loser. This black and white duality has always soothed my mind that so often gets lost in shades of gray (hopefully not 50 of them). But perhaps tennis’s greatest gift is camaraderie. It is hard to forge new relationships as an adult, and tennis has given me a group of friends that has infinitely improved my life. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories. I love deconstructing their personalities and considering their world views. Doubles, in particular, adds an element of teamwork to an inherently lonely sport. 

Tennis has helped me get over my shyness and start living up to my potential. As I consider major life changes, I have finally decided to fix my forehand and escape the velvet rut I have so comfortably been inhabiting. Assuming my backhand and serve stay in form, I could be a pretty good player.

930 thoughts on “Day 10: Finding my Forehand”

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