What Am I Talking About?
Pesto from a can, horribly tough and flavorless steak, and a glass of milk was my 2015 Thanksgiving Day feast. I was fully dressed with two warm-up jackets, jeans and a beanie as my outer layer, as I hunched over my small, one of a million-type college desk/drawer combo eating my dinner in a tiny dorm room in Dijon, France. Snow fell, the Internet connection did not work and my long hair was half frozen. I had just come from Stellenbosch, South Africa where it was the beginning of summer, so I was not ready for the French winter. The first stop on day one in Dijon was the mall to get me some warm clothes. Days one and two were spent lazily stretching and walking around town when the sun shone, and getting readjusted to the time change; I had ten days in Dijon before my last two tournaments of the year in Tunisia.
It’s uncommon to have nicely heated indoor tennis clubs in France. They usually have a bubble over the courts, and the bottom of the bubble doesn’t reach the ground; it stops about three feet short. So the cold wind comes ripping through the courts, low and freezing just daring you to play in shorts. Of course I went to practice the first day fully expecting to play at an indoor club like the ones I had known in Lincoln, Nebraska; heated and well lit, with a viewing area, a pro shop and maybe even a little restaurant. Tell me something more American than going about life thinking all other countries do it the same way you do it. I was under dressed, and mentally not ready to deal with not feeling my hands or feet. It was too cold to play. I didn’t take my pants off once in the ten days of training. But I practiced, and tried to get good sessions in. Then I’d go home, turn the stove on and start boiling water for my can pesto every night.
It was some kind of break at the University, so there were no people around. I maybe saw a couple kids coming and going from the dorm, but I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t get to experience much of France, but I got my first taste of life as a Futures player; a Futures player with no ranking and no coach, at that.
I met Quentin Robert, a French guy ranked inside the Top 1000, a few weeks before in Stellenbosch when the hotel put us together as roommates. Over our three weeks in Stellenbosch we grew close, and he invited me back to France to train with him before we’d both head to Tunisia. It was the best offer I had; a chance to train with a guy who was better than me, a chance to see France, and my chance to really live the life. If you’re reading this article, you have probably read others about how life in the tennis minor league system is tough; but this is not one of those.
All I wanted was a chance to compete again. To remake my tennis career after my enjoyment of the game, and competition, had been sucked out of me by the outdated NCAA and college coaches who couldn’t have done less for my development as a player. Playing Futures is not the (whole) dream. But it is cool. Maybe it just is what you make it. If you want it to suck, there is plenty to complain about. But if you want it to be great, you can make it that too.
Athletics are about so much more than just which sport you play, and what level you play it at. Athletics are a way to learn about yourself, and mold yourself into the person you want to be. If you want to use sport as an outlet for your aggression, go ahead. If you want to care about sportsmanship, care. If you want to learn about hard work, go play a sport and try to be good at it. Want to just exercise and sweat after work, great. You can take it any way you want it, that’s the beauty of any sport. Athletics can teach us about life, and ourselves; and as much as we can see our abilities change and grow on the court, we can see our minds and personalities change off it. And those changes (the ones in our minds and personalities) last longer than any athletic career ever can.
My ten days in France did not go as expected. Quentin’s dad got sick and that kept Q away from the practice courts, so I was hitting with some local players to keep sharp. I spent afternoons running around the track on campus, avoiding the iciest parts so I wouldn’t risk an injury. I followed my workouts up by stretching in my tiny, cold dorm room. I thought there’d at least be a gym I could use, like I was used to having in the US. But that’s the life of a Futures guy; you make a string or half-baked decisions and hope they turn out close to what you planned. Or at least that’s how many of us start out. Hopefully your decisions start to be more solid and thought out as you get experience in that world. Two weeks later, alone in Tunisia, I got my first ATP Point. Going through qualies and winning that first main draw match gave me a feeling I’d never felt on a tennis court before. I had gotten what I came for both as an athlete and a person. My athletic career has taught me how to deal, and learn, and adapt. I hope your athletic life helps you as much as mine has helped me.