Growing up, I had two best friends, John and Bill. The three of us did everything together. We hung out, went to the movies, talked about girls and complained about the usual things that kids complain about. Most of all, we played tennis together.
Before, after, and sometimes instead of, school, we'd head over to the old lady's house down the street from where Bill lived. She had a cement court that had clearly seen better days: cracks extending from the net to the baseline and grass peeking up from in-between. The conditions didn't matter. We just wanted to play. And play we did.
For hours each week, John, Bill and I ruled that court as the greatest tennis players in the world. We played the French, Australian and, when the gardener had neglected the grass in the cracks, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Davis Cup? You'd better believe it! We had our red white and blue t-shirts and, several times each week, we triumphantly brought the Cup back to the United States.
We became our favorite pros. I was always Rod Laver. It didn't matter that the "Rocket" was left-handed and I was a "rightie," he was my guy. John was John Newcombe. First, because his name was John but mostly because, among the three of us he was the only one that had a chance of growing a Newcombe-like moustache. Bill, the clown of our little trio was Illie Nastase.
We battled each other over hundreds of matches, hitting thousands of balls in the court, out of the court and, on occasion, into the old lady's pool. She'd look out her window, feign aggravation and soon after bring us a pitcher of lemonade. We'd sit under her big oak tree, drink our lemonade and talk about our matches and other things.
I was a pretty good player. John was better than me and extremely competitive with dreams of playing pro tennis. Bill was better than no one. Tall, thin and painfully un-athletic, the Nastase of our little group struggled to make contact with the ball and when he did, it usually seemed to rest in the deep end of the pool. But we never seemed to notice. It didn't matter who was better, we just wanted to have fun.
John and I also played "real" tennis: the junior tournament circuit, and for our school teams. Bill would always be at our matches, cheering us on.
Sadly, as often happens with high school graduation, the tremendous trio drifted apart. I went to school in Florida, John to California and no one was ever quite sure what happened to Bill after high school.
The years went by and I often thought back to those great times on that horrible tennis court. Whatever happened to my buddies? Where were they? What were they doing? Were they married? Did they have kids? Most of all I wondered if they still played tennis?
They had to, I assumed. It was such an important part of our lives growing up that how could they not? I certainly had continued my love of the game. After college tennis I began to teach and write about the sport. Surely, my buddies were still involved in some way. I decided to find out.
Thanks to a few phone calls and the Internet, I was able to track my long-lost friends down. Both had ventured out into the world after college but had eventually returned and settled close to where we grew up.
I picked up the phone and called John first. He seemed genuinely happy to hear from me and we caught up on the years quickly. After high school, life had continued for John nicely. He never played professional tennis but his competitive nature had served him well in the world of business. He married his college sweetheart and had two great kids.
I told him what I was doing and about my family. I then asked John if he still played tennis. His voice suddenly dropped and developed an edge to it. "No" he said very firmly. "I haven't picked up a racket since my freshman year in college." The tone in his voice warned me not to ask any further but, deciding not to mind my own business, I said, "Why not?"
The phone was silent for a moment and then John explained, "I got to college and went out for the tennis team. To make a very long story short, I found out that the high school tennis star really wasn't very good after all. I couldn't beat anyone so I gave my rackets away and haven't played since."
"Do you miss it," I asked. John answered a little too quickly, "No, I've moved on." "Moved on" was said in such a way that really meant "grown up." After a few more minutes, we said goodbye, promising to get the families together.
Bill, I ran into by accident. I was in the video store when I heard a familiar voice call my name. I turned around and there was my old friend. The voice was the same but the body had drastically changed.
Nearly as wide as he was tall, Bill's facial features were surrounded by what could only be described as a balloon. He walked towards me with that painful gait that comes from too much weight and too little activity.
Always friendly, Bill gave me a big hug and we decided to go around the corner for a beer. As with John, we caught up quickly. Clearly he was no longer playing tennis so I didn't bring up the subject----he did!
"Do you remember all those fun tennis games we used to play at the old lady's house?" he asked. The size of my smile clearly said that I had. Bill's voice dropped a bit and he suddenly looked very sad. God, do I miss that," he said while ordering another beer.
"Why don't you start playing again? I asked him. "You know Greg, I tried a couple of times over the years but it was never the same as when John, you and I played. As you know, I was never much of an athlete. In school I was always picked last for all the team sports. It was very humiliating, but with you guys, it never mattered. We didn't care who the best or worst was: we just had fun.
When I tried to pick it up again after college, all of a sudden my skill, or lack of it, became an issue. I took some lessons but never seemed to get any better and someone would always make fun of me, so I finally just gave up."
Leaving Bill at the bar that day, I realized that my friends no longer played tennis for one reason: they felt inferior--not good enough. And if they couldn't be good, as they defined it, then why play?
John masked his feelings of inadequacy by saying that he'd grown up and moved beyond playing childhood games. Bill was much more honest about his reasons for leaving the game
As kids, we played tennis for one reason: it felt good. It felt good to move our bodies, to sweat as we chased and hit ball after ball. We did our best and our best was good enough.
Unfortunately, as we grow up, life drops two bombs into our minds that poison our thinking. The first is our obsession with comparing ourselves to others in order to determine our place in the world. Be it in the classroom, the office or on the tennis court, we compare.
Once we begin to compare ourselves to others, it no longer is enough to do our "best." If our best isn't as good as the next guys "best" we feel inadequate. We think about how good we "should" be rather than how good we are or how much progress we've already made.
When we constantly compare ourselves to others we don't allow ourselves to move at our own pace. We feel pressure to improve quickly, to "keep up." This pressure, in many cases, robs us of our enjoyment of the game.
Second, life tells us that we need to grow up and cast aside the games of our youth, our "play." We're supposed to fill our time with more important, grown-up activities. We must constantly strive for more. We must multi-task and if we're not totally exhausted and stressed out at the end of the day (like everyone else because we must compare) we're doing something wrong.
John and Bill bought into these ideas. Their fun ended when they began to compare themselves with others and allowed their prowess, or lack of, on the court to become a measuring stick of their self-worth. Both felt inadequate. The game was no longer fun so they stopped.
I wonder how many others have traded in the enjoyable, physically beneficial, activities of their youth for the sedentary, gradually decaying, lifestyle of adulthood? Judging by the general poor physical and mental condition of our society, I would say thousands. How many others never even pick up a racket because they're afraid they won't be "good enough?" Again, I suspect far too many.
It's really quite sad because those who cast aside their "play" because they feel as if they're "not good enough" or "too grown up" have amputated a very important part of their lives. Aside from the obvious physical benefits of playing tennis, the "fun" that we can all have on the court is what keeps us vital: keeps us young.
Certainly, life changes, as we grow older. The reckless abandon and fantasies of our youth are replaced by the responsibility and reality of middle age. However, as Jimmy Buffet so eloquently wrote, "I'm growing older but not up."
Hold on to the pleasure of "play." Push aside that urge to look over to the next court to see how good the players are. Focus on yourself. Develop, what I've called in the past, a healthy selfishness. Measure yourself against yourself.
Take a look at where you are, set a realistic goal for where you'd like to be and enjoy trying to narrow the gap between the two. Enjoy the process of improving and learn to observe your game without judging it. Believe me, if you can adopt this approach, a moment will come when hitting the ball cleanly will mean more to you than winning a point.
It's perfectly fine to get out on the tennis court, run around, and swing the racket with the sole goal being to sweat and have a great time. It doesn't matter whether you are a "good" tennis player or a "bad" tennis player by someone else's standards. The important thing is that you are a tennis player!