By Margarita Meyendorff
When I was twelve years old, I had a small poster hanging in my room in Nyack, NY where I grew up. It was of a young girl talking to her horse before a race and the words underneath were, “I would give everything I have to be the lucky dog today.” As a Russian immigrant child, I had this same yearning for love, acceptance and approval. For years, I struggled and fought my way through life. Failure was not an option. Life was exhausting.
Almost a half-century later, I brought this same tempestuous determination to the game of tennis. I was fifty years old when my husband, Miky, started teaching me to play tennis on the clay courts of the Williams Lake Resort in Rosendale, NY. Being the competitive sort, I wanted to play games right away. Winning was awesome, losing was a disaster. I would have meltdowns. I would cry, curse, throw the racket, stomp off the court, and vow that I would never play tennis again. The next day, it was a reversal: “Let’s go.” I would pick up my tennis bag and we would head off for the courts. Miky had the patience of a saint.
I began watching the professional tennis tournaments on TV. Tennis players, like gladiators, face no one but their opponents, sometimes for hours. Even boxers have their trainers and masseurs close by, but a professional tennis player may have no one but a coach sitting in the stands. I was intrigued and challenged by the physical and mental stamina it took to play the game. I noticed that often, it was the Russian players who screamed and threw their rackets when things were not going their way. Ahhh, that Russian soul! That Russian emotional high-strung personality – do or die, all or nothing – so little in between. I understood it. I felt it.
My own Russian competitive spirit spurred me on. Sails billowing, I hit the tennis courts, laughing, crying, yelling, fighting. There was no time for loss. I had to win, despite the fact that when I watched the Open and other high-level matches, it was the steely, cold, unemotional, steady players who stayed consistently in the top ten.
Those are the players who know how to keep their emotions in check and not let them get in the way of the present moment. I had much to learn. Once, I saw an ad in the Omega Institute brochure in Rhinebeck, NY, for a workshop called “The Zen of Tennis.” I laughed.
Meltdown after meltdown, spending a fortune on lessons, on new rackets (having broken a few), buying strings and shoes, I began to notice improvements in my game. I gained strength, accuracy, and a knowledge of the more subtle aspects of tennis – the chess of tennis, in which strategy and psychology entered into playing each stroke. I started to win games, sets and matches. Miky was no longer allowing me to win and our games became more competitive. One season, I even joined USTA, found my ranking and competed in a local tournament. I won the championship in my division. I was playing well, but I was not yet relaxed, or confident.
It was during a tennis match when the “Walk Don’t Run” street sign blazed neon in my mind. I stopped. I looked at a tennis ball in the corner of the court and walked at a deliberate, slow pace to pick it up. Conscious of my slower pace, I reached the service line to serve the ball. I relaxed my shoulders, took a deep breath, and as if for the first time, I tossed the ball up, my serving arm drawing back behind me in the familiar circular motion of the serve. The tennis ball spun in the air and dropped down as the racket made contact in perfect rhythm. In seconds, I arrived at that moment when energy is effortless and the mind is at rest. I was floating, dancing tennis, feeling joy.
Relearning to live and love is humbling and yet it can be as simple as hitting the tennis ball in the racket’s sweet spot and watching it sail for a winner. What I learn on the tennis court, I try to apply to the pick-up game of life.
And so I play tennis.