My father is a multiple time city tennis champion, my mom wears a lot of tennis bracelets, and I’m pretty sure my sister is aware that her cable package includes the Tennis Channel.
With a pedigree like that, it would seem I was clearly destined to hold a raquet. It seems my home would be on the grass of Wimbledon’s center court or the DecoTurf of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
On paper, I might have been destined to be the next Agassi. Unfortunately, on the court I never quite lived up to the hype. With below average lateral quickness, a serve that is just as likely to land in the parking lot as in the service box and a backhand that makes the neighborhood kids boo me off the court, it seems tennis wasn’t meant for me.
My setbacks didn’t stop me from catching up with Madison Durley of the Eckerd tennis team to get a feel for the sport at the collegiate level.
Durley competes for the Eckerd team in both singles and doubles play. He greatly enjoys the sport and the competition of playing against other schools. He explained to me that a doubles match with two good teams is one of the most fun athletic competitions to be involved in.
“In college, everyone gets up to the net so fast that points only last ten or fifteen seconds sometimes,” he explained, “When you get two teams of good players, it is really fun, even if you don’t win.”
I wouldn’t say that I have a temper, but as a kid I found it difficult to keep my composure when things started to go bad in a sport. It was fairly tame during teams sports, but in individual events like golf, I often got upset at myself. My dad used to threaten to make me sit in the car until he was done playing if I threw my club one more time after a bad shot.
Much like golf, tennis is a game that demands control over one’s emotions. Durley explained that tennis is at least half mental, probably even more. He said, “Tennis is a game of inches, and if you have a lot on your mind, it can throw off your swing just a tiny bit and then the ball is over the fence and in the parking lot.”
This is something that I never knew about tennis but as he explained it, the concept made a lot more sense. Durley told me that even a millimeter change in the grip of a raquet can feel strange enough in his hand to cause a difference in his play. Part of the difficulty of tennis matches, according to Durley, is being able to overcome all of these slight changes and nuisances and continue to play at a consistent and successful level.
According to Durley, it is difficult even for him sometimes to recover his emotional state after a bad shot, but he has been doing much better as he has gotten older. Durley won two doubles matches last year with partner Connor Ohlsen and hopes to perform well this year.
As for me, after a few years of watching my father bring home plates and trophies from his own tennis exploits, it seems as though my dream of a Grand Slam victory is a lost cause. My best shot is a two-handed forehand that I can rocket down the line past a lot of people, even if it makes real tennis players laugh to see me swing the raquet like a baseball bat. For some reason, every backhand I hit ends up as a drop shot, barely floating over the net with about as much power as blowing bubbles on a summer day.
The problem might be that I don’t practice the game enough. Durley estimated in his tennis career he has hit several hundred thousand balls. He said every match can have between 300 and 400 hits, and even more if the players are evenly matched and rallies last longer than a few hits. It’s no wonder the muscle memory is so ingrained in the players that one slight difference can throw off the rhythm and feeling of the shots they expect to hit.
Another difficulty for playing tennis at Eckerd is the lack of scholarships available to the team. Durley explained that other schools in the conference have a minimum of four scholarships for their team, allowing them to recruit players from places like Germany and Spain to play for them. Eckerd does not offer scholarships for tennis and thus many of the best players in the state who are offered a full ride to play the game often end up leaving the area to compete.
It still takes an incredible amount of skill to compete at the collegiate level in any sport. It’s something that I will never experience in the sport of tennis. Until I can control my serve enough to keep it between the lines, I think I’ll stick to rugby.