I’ll admit it. I’m in love with tennis. I love the way it feels to strike the ball perfectly, to watch a well-constructed point, and to experience both the highs after hitting a winner and the lows after missing the ball in the net for what must have been the 20th time.
In that way, tennis is like a metaphor for some things in life, and that is one of the things I appreciate about it the most. When I start playing, I’m often a little nervous; what if I just forget how to hit the ball like how Lyra forgets how to use the alethiometer in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”? But those nerves are just nerves, and soon enough I’ve remembered how to at least get the ball over the net. Yet sometimes I just can’t get the ball in the court. It will travel wide, fly long, or I might just shank it into outer space. Sometimes it’s just not my day. Likewise, sometimes I get out of bed on the wrong side. I’m angry, frustrated, and upset all day, and I’m not sure how or why I feel this way. My tennis coaches have always made a point of recognizing that having an “off day” is a reality of tennis, and of life, and that the only thing you can do is keep plugging away. By nature, we as humans are imperfect beings, and it is only natural that we fail even when what we desire the most is success.
My experience in tennis has consistently taught me the necessity of maintaining a high level of effort, even when my shots are turning sour. Back in the winter of 2015, I was at practice at my new tennis club. At the time, I felt relatively confident about my tennis abilities, both physical and mental. But one of the coaches didn’t think so. Coach Eric took me and a few other players to another set of courts, away from the main academy, and gave us a shakedown.
“All of you are mentally weak,” he said. “When you’re down in a match, you don’t keep fighting. You throw a pity party for yourself. And that is not what a true competitor does.”
At first, I was a little shocked. Cormac Chester, a whiny tennis player who can’t keep it together after being down a few games? Impossible! But after a bit of uncomfortable recollection, I began to realize that it was true. At a tournament in Iowa, after losing four games in a row to be down 1-4 in the first set, I had basically thrown in the towel. I had lost all confidence in my ability to play tennis, and had presumed that the skill-gap between myself and my opponent was the same as between myself and Andy Murray. The fact that my opponent is not currently on the pro tour should say it all. Ultimately, a true competitor does not get caught up in losing; instead, they keep fighting until the bitter end.
But tennis is not all about continuing to compete when the going gets tough. Even if your tennis skills are a little lacking, there is a satisfaction when the ball is hit cleanly, right in the center of the racket’s sweet spot. My primary tennis coach, coach KB, at one point told me that in the course of a match, you’re only going to be hitting around five “perfect shots,” five shots that you could not have hit any better. Part of my love of tennis is the quest for these shots. There is not any other feeling quite like hitting a ball in the center of your strings for a winner up the line. It’s difficult to describe what that feeling is; it has a “je ne sais quoi” aspect to it.
In that search for the perfect shot, the battle is not just with yourself, but also with your opponent. For every time that you set up to hit the ball, your opponent is actively doing what they can to make sure that it is not the perfect shot you desire. But the imperfection that lies in every human being means there is always a flaw in both your and your opponent’s game. I love tennis because of the problem solving that must go on continuously in every match in order to achieve victory. A point constructed to perfectly exploit the weakness in a player’s game is awe-inspiring. In “Ender’s Game,” Ender Wiggin describes how he can get inside the mind of his enemy “well enough to defeat him.” The best tennis players in the world do this for every single point, and to me, that is truly incredible.
So, on Valentine’s Day, at the end of the night, you’ll probably find me curled up in my bed, watching highlights of what is universally recognized as the greatest tennis match of all time: the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final in which Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7. These two players strike the ball about as cleanly as possible, are always problem solving and attempting to find and capitalize on their opponents’ weaknesses, and compete like there is no tomorrow. Although a lot of beauty nowadays is attributed to the superficial looks that supermodels have, for me, one of the most beautiful things in the world happens on the tennis court.