In my tennis class, the practice was hierarchical. As you moved along rungs of the ladder, that is, as you get better in tennis – the drills got boring and boring. It was so repetitive, it made me want to just poke my eyeballs for some reason. For two whole years, I was not a part of this monotonous training. To put it simply: I was a beginner. And then one day, my coach texted dad that I had been “promoted” to Bimetal courts so my parents would have to drop me there for practice instead of the English Club, where I was previously playing. Before every practice session at the English Club, we were made to run four rounds around 3 adjacent courts, then the coach’s hitting partners would feed us tennis balls. When they fed balls, sometimes it’d be didactic like “back-hand down-the-line” or “convert your backhand to forehand” and you’d have to hit the ball as per the instructions. When you reach the pinnacle of following every instruction without a single error, you get promoted to Bimetal courts.
I was beyond excited that finally I got to play with the big kids. On my first day at Bimetal, after I finished warming-up, I was waiting for the hitting partner anna to feed me balls and counsel on the shots I’m supposed to go for but to my dashing hopes, all I did for the next 65 mins was hit only forehand cross-courts over and over with the same hitting partner at the same pace even with small breaks in between. At one point, my concentration started wavering, fatigue kicked in and I was hitting the balls wherever my arms took me. Later on, a seniors would advise me – “it’ll be forehand cross-courts only until you can return every single ball with the same force, same focus”. This went for at least a three weeks and by then forehand cross-court had become a muscle memory for me. I could look somewhere else and hit the ball correctly to extreme right corner of the court. But this was at the cost of extreme of shoulder aches, especially the right shoulder from over-use. And eventually, I put the blame on 12th standard board exams and discontinued regular tennis altogether. I was a poor player as well, my presence of mind was very fickle. If I was leading, I’d start imagining winning the match altogether and I celebrated a lot. Even it was my opponent’s error, I would pump my fists and put an awful show. That’s outright poor mentality, if you ask me. Little things like this is what makes tennis the greatest sport ever. It’s necessary for the body and mind to be constantly synchronized and disciplined. And that takes a toll.
This is just my personal experience from about 4-5 years of regular tennis. And this smidgen of an experience gave me such respect for the current tennis players on the tour – especially Rafa, Federer and Djokovic. It means one thing to win, it means a whole another thing to keep winning. One evening, my coach made me play against this guy whom we called “Aishwarya anna”. We called him that because he was one of my friend Aishwarya’s brother. He had the best serve I have ever seen in real life, in 3-D. He’s elder to me by a couple of years. We played best of three sets and I lost 0-6, 0-6. He serves whipped past me like a torrent of electricity. It was not an elegant serve like Federer or stylish like Sharapova’s but he’d toss the ball so freaking high, arch his body almost to an inverted-C and send the tennis ball flying down. Even our coach couldn’t return his serves. After the match, I asked, “Aishwarya anna, how are you serving like that?” and he replied, “I practiced this serve for 2-months straight.” And I learnt that repetition is not bad if you know what you’re doing. This also got me thinking how long would’ve Rafa, Federer and Djokovic spent on every single shot to reach such perfection that now they’re capable of beyond conventional shots like Federer’s clean tweeners or Rafa’s spectacular banana-shot?
The average reaction time to an 130mph service is 0.41 seconds (which is less than the time it takes to blink twice, quickly). Tennis bypasses conscious thoughts, more likely it operates on a range of reflexes which comes through hours and hours of perfecting your reflexes in the first place. What we see on TV is nothing, it warps the most important aspects of the game. I have been to just one professional ITF match, and it blew my mind when I figured the speed at which the balls were hit, the little the reaction time players have and how fast the ball actually moves across the court. Again, it made me wonder, this is just an ITF match, how strenuous and dynamic would the actual ATP tour matches be? And it comes promptly the one of my biggest wishes is to sit at the outer courts of any grand slam venue and watch the pros play, the seats in outer courts are barely thirty feet from the play and it’s easier to relish the game, and sample the difference between TV-tennis and actual tennis. Moreover, it’s not just the physical prospects to this game but mentality as well.
I was watching this year’s Australian Open and until Rafa played Tsitsipas, I was damn sure Rafa would win the slam. And if you watch the match, the turning point for Tsitsipas and downfall of Rafa is conspicuous. You can see a tectonic shift in the match, the control went to Tsitsipas and he took it on from there. This is the part where Djokovic wins – I have never seen him let his opponent get the better of him, it’s like he’s in his own bubble of thought, oblivious to the charades of his opponent. Maybe it’s from all the yoga and tantric healing or whatever but he keeps his mental cool (though at the price of his racquets) at the most pivotal times in a match. And it is so bloody hard to do that. I ardently hated Djokovic mostly because he got the best of Rafa and my other favourite players. But disregarding that, his personal life or his views on how water molecules have life, I have a found a great respect for his game. Right now, he’s rock-solid and invincible. He could win the Wimbledon this year as well. For all I know, I don’t think there will be a trio so dominant in the field of tennis, at least in my lifetime. Rafa and Federer might hang their boots anytime in the next 2-3 years maybe and I am so glad and grateful to witness these players’ genius through all these years. Even though I’m impassioned about Rafa, I’ve realised that watching any of the trio is an equivalent of a religious experience.