Let's put our cards on the table right away----we're getting older. Much as we may try to hide or deny it, any of us who are over thirty will soon begin to feel the effects of aging (if we haven't already). Father time sneaks up on us slowly and we all do our best to ignore his calling. Our
skirts or shorts have become just a touch snugger but we're much more willing to go along with the discomfort than we are to admit that our bodies are perhaps spreading out just a bit. The skin around our faces and, for that matter, other parts of our bodies, have become a bit looser, but that's okay, we just stay away from the mirror. We're stiffer after a tough match but we rationalize that by saying that we really "did a lot of running."
At some point however, the truth hits us like a Sampras serve and we are forced to admit that we're not kids anymore. In fact, we are now, oh my God, middle aged. For me, the truth hit a short while ago over a weekend. First, during one of my lessons I had brought out a radar gun to have some fun with my students. They all had a great time serving and trying to reach the 100 mph mark, and then they wanted to see me serve. Now, I have never had a tremendously hard serve, usually slightly harder than Jimmy Connors and significantly softer than Venus Williams', and I knew roughly where my time on the gun would be.
WRONG!!!! After I had hit a few warm-up serves and began to crank it up, so to speak, I was hitting what felt the same pace serve as always, but the gun was displaying a speed several mph less than in the past. "Batteries must be going," I thought but nope, they were brand new. Aging wake-up call #1.
That night I was sitting with my daughter watching television when she decided that the new grey whiskers that had suddenly popped up on my chin were infinitely more interesting than the rerun of FRIENDS we were watching. Aging Wake-up call #2.
Finally, on Sunday, my wife and I went out for our usual run and, as always, told the kids that we would be back in about 45 minutes. When we walked back through the door the kids asked what took us so long? Our 45 minute run, which we ran at the same pace (or so we thought) we had for years, now had taken over an hour. Aging wake-up call #3. Great weekend I had.
Anyway, the point is we are getting older, and no matter how much exercise and nutritional discipline we do, we can't avoid the inevitable decline in our athletic performance. The same effort will simply not produce the same results anymore. We begin to struggle to get to balls we once reached easily, our bodies get a bit stiffer and we begin to have those nagging injuries that we never had in our earlier years.
For many tennis players, this inevitability is too much to bear, and as soon as their performance on the court begins to decline, they say to themselves, "tennis is becoming too difficult, I can't play as well as I used to so why play at all? It's time to try golf."
My response to all of you out there with those thoughts is "Bite your tongue!!!!" Will you ever play as well as you did when you were younger? Probably not, does it matter? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!!! What many players view as the downside of their tennis careers as far as their level of play is concerned, is really the beginning of the most enjoyable time of their tennis lives.
THE EVOLUTION OF A TENNIS PLAYER
I believe that the evolution of a tennis player is a three stage process. STAGE 1 begins when one first picks up the game. Whether the game was picked up for reasons of health or simply because it looked like fun, Stage 1 is when a tennis player is at their purest. They're brand new to the sport, eager to learn, able to laugh at themselves, and they simply have a great time on the court . Stage one players can often be heard to say "God, do I love tennis." At this point, the joy of playing, or attempting to play, the game is the most important thing in the players minds.
Problems begin to arise when a tennis player moves on to STAGE 2. They've been playing for a little while, are beginning to improve a bit, and then the dreaded tennis ego emerges. Suddenly,
the game becomes soooooo serious and each time they take the court it becomes a test of their worth.
Stage 2 players become concerned with who they play with, how they look, why they can't hit that topspin backhand and when they are going to be "A" players. You very rarely hear a Stage 2 player speak of how much fun they had after a match. They much more often talk about how "I beat Bill" or "How could I lose to Jane?" For your typical Stage 2 player, the focus has shifted away from the game itself, and moved inward, with the player now judging themselves by their performance on the court. Temper tantrums, broken rackets and comments such as "I hate this game," are typical characteristics of a Stage 2 tennis player.
An aging Stage 2 tennis player is the one who is most at risk for giving up the game. Unfortunately, their level of play has become the barometer of their enjoyment of the game. When their performance begins to slip, due to getting a bit older, they are faced with three choices: they can refuse to acknowledge it and put themselves through continued torture trying to recapture their athletic youth, they can quit the game and start all over in another activity, or they can realize that they are standing on the threshold of Stage 3, the happiest time of their tennis lives.
STAGE 3: THE ULTIMATE DESTINATION OF EVERY TENNIS PLAYER
When a player walks through the door to STAGE 3, he leaves his ego behind and has, in a sense, come full circle and returned to STAGE 1 where, once again, the game is number one and the overriding goal is not wins and losses, but simply FUN.
The pressure is off. A STAGE 3 player has gotten over the need to constantly prove himself on
the court and remembers the reasons they picked up the game in the first place. Certainly, they still do everything possible to play their best, but they approach tennis from a much different, more relaxed, perspective. They realize that they are not going to Wimbeldon unless they buy a ticket, and allow themselves to simply enjoy the game. As always, they have goals but their goals have moved away from wins towards longevity. A Stage 3 players number one priority is to keep playing the game, with whatever talent and physical capabilities they have, for as long as possible.
One of my favorite writers was the late Dr. George Sheehan. Dr. Sheehan was probably the sport of running's most respected writer and his philosophy of longevity as ones top goal has shaped many of my thoughts on tennis. Once a front of the pack runner, Dr. Sheehan battled cancer, yet never stopped running. In fact, near the end of his life, he was still running in races, though he found himself in a truly foreign place--the back of the pack.
In a recent issue of RUNNER'S World magazine, Joe Henderson, a close friend of Sheehan's, described a scene which I feel displays not only Dr. Sheehan's attitude towards running, but also the approach that all tennis players should bring to the game.
In the last race Dr. Sheehan ran he found himself running in last place with another, younger runner who was, at the time, injured. I'll respectfully quote Joe Henderson here; "The runner turned to George and complained, "You know, Doc, we used to be good."
"George came right back with "We're as good as we ever were. We're doing the best we can with what we have. You have an injury and I have an illness. But we're still out here, giving our all. No one can do more or should do less."
Powerful words which we should all try to live by. Do the best that you can with what you have. Try to be the best that you can be, but remember where you are. If you're in your 40's, try to be the best 40 year-old tennis player you can be. If you're in your 50's, 60's, 70's or 80's the goal is the same. Play hard, enjoy the game but remember that the winner, in not only tennis but in life as well, is not the one who comes in first, but rather the one who comes in last-----last to put down the racket.!!!!