The season sits before me, new and unopened, untouched by sweat, endeavour and close line calls, joy at winning, despair at losing, butterflies in the stomach, or kit on the changing room floor.
Jan 4th. Nearly at the first tournament of the new season a Grade 5 at Ivybridge in Devon. A warm up for greater things, but not to be approached in any lessor manner than a major tournament. And with the early nerves comes the knowledge that there are still two boxes of mince pies in the cupboard. I reach into the cupboard and place one box of mince pies on the worktop. One wouldn’t hurt would it? Not without a second glance, I resist, substituting mince pie fever for two dry crackers, then go to bed.
Thurs 5th. A rest day today. Feeling a little stiff this morning, so rest is a good idea. It has taken a little convincing as I am still thinking, maybe just a little run would be good. And I have to reason myself out of exercise. It’s a good thing that I am keen I think. Today though, rest is the best option, no question.
From the moment I saw the draw yesterday for this weekend’s tournament, there is a little bit of excitement building. Who am I playing? What is his record? How old? Where from?
This morning the mince pies are still beaconing me. Time to put them back in the cupboard.
Fri 6th. The season sits before me, new and unopened, untouched by sweat, endeavour and close line calls, joy at winning, despair at losing, butterflies in the stomach, or kit on the changing room floor. Should I serve or receive, will I start well, remain relaxed in the match defining moments. How will the forehand play today, will the serve, serve me well and that improving backhand is it ready for the rigours of the matches ahead. New shirts, are they the right choices. Am I really ready to make a next step and move regularly beyond the first round of tournaments? Can I start well, get into the heads of better players, hang with them until they begin to doubt themselves. Can I stop those runaway matches where I seem to be 3-0 down before the match has really begun. Will I be able to remain calm in the face of the net rusher and think about the lob rather than trying the impossible winner from wide of the court. Will I remember that usually I have more time than I think to play the shot. Can I prepare early and create time and space for myself.
So many questions. I am nervous for tomorrow. I am excited for tomorrow. The weeks and months of practice, running and gym work will be tested for the first time. Still time to browse the psychology of sport book that I pulled from the shelf earlier in the week.
Indoor singles practice. At the end of the warm up I hit the last ball as a backhand. In relaxed mode I have brought the racket up the back and side of the ball in a clean arc and the ball has jumped away with lots of spin into the far corner of the court. It is a long time since I played a more satisfying and complete shot. If it was not perfect it was pretty much damn near perfect. In the moment I sense further potential that I might achieve. That is exciting. I could stop at this moment and not hit another ball this evening as I am sure I will not hit a better one.
Sat 7th. It all comes down to this. Competition day. Maybe just a grade 5, but it is kick starting 2023 competition. All the months of practice and gym work, put to the test for the first time today. It’s going to be a good day.
The scores for the record were;
1st Rd 1-4, 1-4 Lost
Consolation 4-1, 4-1 Won
Consolation s/f WO
Consolation Final 1-4, 1-4 Lost
Really pleased with today. Many positives on all fronts from preparation, as well as technical and tactical aspects.
Never like losing but lost to younger better players hitting the ball harder and with more spin than I am used to. Losing still causes some fuzz in the brain, even when losing to much better players. Not sure it is possible to be entirely satisfied with coming second.
Weds 11th. Lesson. The main fault is that when under pressure my forehand in particular reverts to a swipe and not the nice smooth stroke we have been working on. I get caught moving backwards too often with the deep ball. I started the session hitting the ball crisply, the above assessment burst my bubble a little. However when we played points I was hitting the ball well and making good shot choices. Serve practice was average, lacked any real flow and for a lot of effort the ball was hardly reaching the back wall. Mmm what to do?
Fri 12th. Evening doubles. Early on I felt strong and athletic, though it did not really translate into the game.
A number of total airshots this evening for which I can offer no explanation. On the positive side there were a small number of occasions when either I reached and controlled a ball at arms length or got across to a ball that can only be down to improved conditioning.
On nights like this aware of my own ordinariness I begin to wonder and doubt my ability. Why am I not learning faster? What can I do to accelerate my learning? How much was today’s ordinaryness down to going to the gym today as well or a late evening meal?
Sat 14th. So for all this effort what is the payback. If it were merely results then it could be viewed as a poor return. Something about the process of challenging myself. And why tennis, why not triathlon or running or some other such endeavour. I suppose I know, I have explored those routes and the endless training no longer appeals. The complexity of the tennis challenge is intriguing as well as frustrating. It would be nice from my long association with tennis to sign off on a high, having mastered the game a little better in these later years.
When will that end be? Would I want there to be one final game to sign off or would I prefer my body through some injury or misfortune to tell me I can no longer play? I don’t know the answer to that just yet and I hope I have time to make the decision. It will not be imminent by choice.
In fact right now I am enjoying the sport more than I ever have. It does seem that the more I put in, the more I get out.
Sun 15th. Drip, drip, drip small droplets of doubt are my first conscious thoughts of the day. Still dark outside, the overwintering birds are playing their first songs of the day through the buffeting January winds. This morning is a rest day from tennis and workouts, a chance for the body to recover. The first feelings are the stiffness in my ribs back and front from yesterday’s stretches. Maybe also a time for the mind to reset.
Mostly at this point I slide from the bed after locating my glasses on the bedside table. Today I decide to stay put and see what happens. Lying on my back, hands gently clasped across my forehead, their weight as if holding my head to the pillow. Drifting, allowing the mind to wander, each thought gently giving way to the next. The drips of doubt become more positive as if washed by gentle waves on a summer’s beach. Gentle waves washing me with warm thoughts, just being, just thinking, just drifting. I can taste the salt on my tongue.
And now my mind starts to direct its thoughts from their wanderings, gently steering them to bring the quest into view. There are questions; Have I done enough, have I hit with the right people, should I have worked more on my serve, why did I not try out a new racket? I am good at routines but maybe I stayed with them too long, foregoing the need to constantly challenge for the comfort and familiarity of the routine. Maybe that is true, but I forgive me. Always do the best you can in the moment I remind myself.
Aiming high. Is it allowed? who gave me permission to even dream? I recall being asked last week if I had any competitions coming up. I referred to the recent Ivybridge event, that seemed reasonable and not too ambitious. I omitted to mention the forthcoming Glasgow trip as too ambitious or boastful to share. I imagine (too much) what others might say or think. Too big for his boots!, who does he think he is, thoughts I partly think myself. You either are or you are not good, unless you are a junior, were progress is allowed, but even then seems to come as a surprise. Their unseen practices and ambitions driving them on. I have the same ambitions, though it feels less acceptable to admit them. You either are or you are not good. No room for not yet!
Footnote: Mike Thomas is 62 years young. He has unfinished business with the game of tennis. This is the story of his journey captured in real time, outcome unknown. Follow on lifelongtennis.com or say hello on e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org