Small Steps to Learning to Live Well: Learning to Play Tennis

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By Elizabeth Evans

I’ve always loved tennis, ever since my first short tennis tournament when I was 10 years old. I made it through the knockout stages in our enormous year group of 35 to win the final against Sarah C. We were rewarded with Mars Bars and had to eat them in delighted secrecy in the basement cloakrooms at playtime.

When I was very little, my Father would send me out onto the patio and say ‘Don’t come back inside until you can hit the ball against the wall 100times in a row!’, ‘Don’t come back inside until you can do 150 hit ups without dropping it’. Then there was the swing ball… Smack, thwack, smack, thwack. I think I was very, very lucky to find a natural affinity with a ball game when I did.

I had some coaching through my secondary school years, it was my afternoon of adventure as I took the school bus away from prep and the boarding restraints with my friend Anna. We’d have jacket potato, a slice of ham and melted cheese, salad with a honey and vinegar dressing then change into our tennis whites, jump into her Mum’s fiesta and rattle and roll to ‘Top Spin’ tennis centre in Teesside where we would listen intently to instruction from Derek and his better looking mate with an all year round tan.

I captained the tennis team, I was so proud. I knew my parents had been good tennis players in their youth. I never won anything prestigious, I never played County. I just loved the game, the perfection of my serve, the close team, my double handed backhand down the line. Leaving school on a warm afternoon to head to a tennis match was a special feeling. My doubles partner Anna and I had the best combination, not just borne out by her Head racket and devastating volley but my Slazenger and steady base line play. We laughed until we cried at bizarre opposition who insisted on bouncing up and down at the net and looked slightly like a banana and then consoled each other over our defeats in our singles matches.

I went to University and found a pal to play against, I even dabbled in squash and gained a place on the University women’s ‘Unsquashable B.U.S.T.’ team. When I started teaching I joined a team where I was the young legs to my older experienced Wimbledon linesman partner. Tennis is a natural extension of me, I can instinctively play with a racquet and a ball.

I remember the thrill of going to town to buy my first graphite racquet, with a full length cover no less! The memory of this day is darkened by our return – my brother switched on the TV to the horrors of Hillsborough unfolding on the field. I sat with my face behind my new racquet cover, inhaling the smell of new strings but hardly breathing. I bought my first decent racquet when I was in my late twenties, a fortnight later I was pregnant and didn’t dare risk the pregnancy with anything more than a brisk walk. 9 years on and ‘Hurray!’ I have picked up my racquet again!

The irony is that I was coached at a tennis centre called ‘Topspin’ but I wasn’t taught any ‘topspin’ technique. This has resulted in my recent return to tennis consisting of a total deconstruction of my shots and learning how to play all over again, and, actually, learning how to play tennis again has correlated perfectly with me learning how to live well.

The parallels of deconstructing my game and reconstructing my life

Every week I have 1 hour of physical exercise and thorough tennis tuition where I follow instruction and perform the same manoeuvre over and over, the aim being for it to become my natural forehand return. Every week I also have 1 hour of mental exercise and therapy where,amongst other things, we discuss how I have dealt with issues that have arisen for me and move towards a helpful reaction to them that will become my natural behaviour.

Every day I analyse how well I am. I need to sleep enough, rest, drink water, avoid too much alcohol and caffeine, socialise in moderation, eat well. If I’m not well, I need to work out why, I have to gather myself up and work out what triggered this feeling, what could I have done differently? It’s so hard. I’m getting better and I need to give myself time.I need to be positive, patient and persevere.

So will I be watching Wimbledon? Yes, but not fanatically. It’s mesmerising watching the ball go backwards and forwards and of course there’s the excitement and pride when the player you’re supporting is on court and playing well. My Aunt loves to tell the story of how she found me, on a visit to my Mother, watching Wimbledon at the age of 3. It was typically raining there and I was perched on the back of the arm chair with my wellies on and an umbrella aloft, totally immersed in the goings on.

Deconstructing my game and reconstructing my life happen to have taken place at the same time. They both need new learning. I find my tennis lesson easy and a pleasure because I know what is coming and I get as many goes at it as there are balls in the bag, and after that there is always next week. In real life we don’t get those repeated chances, it’s more like the unpredictability of a match. I’m learning to anticipate the next ball and I’m learning what to do to respond to it to win the point. Eventually it will be natural. Then it won’t be about the winning but playing the game again and enjoying it again.