June 2021
the ugly truths of a game of tennis

The ugly side of a tennis match

As much as I love tennis, there are some aspects to a tennis match that I truly hate. To the point where it is not fun to play any more, especially at tournament level. I suppose those things are not particular to tennis, as they mostly have to do with the human nature. But tennis can be a cruel sport when it comes to building mental toughness.

Now, I’m not talking about the inherent challenges of learning tennis, which are still part of the fun and excitement this sport can give you. It’s about the nasty little things you sometimes have to endure during a tennis match, that make you not want to compete. Let me share some very recent personal experience first, before diving into those negative things we have to play through at times.

The things people who love tennis should hate in a match

I’ve only been playing competitively for a bit over a year. At first, I participated in beginners’ or medium level tournaments and won a lot. I played my first advanced category final at a local club tournament last night and lost. This was my third advanced tournament, so making it to the final was really cool. Then how come my experience feels so much more bitter than sweet? (Ask Naomi Osaka how she felt after her 2018 US Open Women’s final victory against Serena Williams).

A little back-story on my competition experience first…

The first time I played at the “advanced” level, I won the qualifying match and lost in the first round. My opponent was a better and much more experienced player. Very skilled with her racket, incredible anticipation and nerves of steel. I thoroughly enjoyed the match, played as freely as I could and was very impressed by my opponent, both as a tennis player and as a person. I gracefully accepted defeat and got motivated to work harder.

In the second tournament, I won my first main draw match. I lost in the second round, to a player who was great at reading the match. I like pace, so she moonballed and junkballed until I couldn’t follow any more. She did so consistently and to perfection, with great spin and placement. I didn’t enjoy the match and was fatigued mentally by the end. But I gave credit to my opponent and started practicing receiving spinning moonballs as soon as the next day.

This third time, I made it to the final, eliminating 3 great and much different players in the process. The first was an aggressive baseliner, big server too. I counterpunched often and played aggressively when I could. I won 2-0 and it was the best and most enjoyable tennis match I’ve played, ever. Next, I faced a very crafty pusher, who was also great at the net. Not the combination you’d want in a breakthrough match. My legs were cramping from trying to adjust my footwork point after point, but I won. At the semis I faced a player with incredible spin, aggressive from the baseline. Having worked hard on anticipating spin, I managed to throw her off her game and win in straight sets.

It would have been a perfect tennis experience, no matter what happened in the final. Only it wasn’t.

When a loss hurts less than the game itself

My opponent in the final came later than the match was supposed to start. I’d already been there for over half an hour, stretched, warmed up and waited. She took forever to stretch and she needed another 20 minutes of warm up to be ready. Almost an hour had passed already since I first stepped onto the court. But I just wanted to play and have some fun, so no big deal. Throughout the first set she took bathroom breaks, stalled while serving, made questionable calls so we had to stop and chat, checked her mobile and delayed change-overs. I couldn’t get anything to work from serving to finishing and I lost 6-1. Still,  it was just a bad day where my game was off. No big deal.

In the second set, I wiped the slate clean and got 2-1 up with a break. At that point, she got furious from a line call she didn’t like and made a huge fuss about it. Told me I’m too inexperienced to judge her shots, that she’s seen me before and knows I try to steal critical points. And that if I don’t change the call and give her the point (the ball was out) she would “show me”. I stood my ground because I was sure about my call and she asked for an umpire, to which I agreed. The umpire came, but I had already hit rock bottom mentally. Frankly, I felt embarrassed. I got broken in the next game.

I kept tying the match from then on, always having to deal with delays, phone calls, bathroom breaks and poor challenges. Not one of the challenges turned her way, but she would efficiently break my rhythm. She’d have me hit perfect first serves for a second time, stop play to go fetch a stray ball and so on. I got broken in the last game and lost 6-4. In the end, none of these great “self-distraction” tactics I had read about worked.

The most interesting part about this is that I had played against her a couple of months earlier, in my first main draw match. I had no idea who she was or what she played like. She would stall and take breaks and make bad calls but to a much lesser extent. I beat her 6-3, 6-3. On one hand, it is kind of consoling to know that she resorted to mind games to beat me. On the other, it is even more frustrating that she succeeded when I should have known better.

I’m trying to isolate all the non-tennis related incidents and objectively judge my game so I can find something positive to take away, but I can’t. It just bothers me too much to know that such a game-tactic is eventually rewarded with trophies. In my limited tournament experience, I’ve played against pushers, moonballers, big hitters or players who would yell and smash their rackets -all those types most people dread playing. And I’ve been OK. Had I lost in any of the previous rounds I would have been perfectly happy and glad I learned a great deal. After the final, I felt as if someone had taken away something from my love for the sport. And that is a big deal.

how I feel when I play against a tennis player with poor sportmanship

On court bullying

Another horrible thing I’ve come across during tennis matches is plain bullying on the court. Before starting to play competitively, the tennis court for me was a sanctuary. A place where you leave everything bad that’s happened during the day out the door. You just step in and life is good again. Unfortunately, that is not the case for everyone and that is a real test of character.

In my first mixed doubles tournament, I teamed up with a good friend of mine. We had good fun until we faced a couple with a big gap in skill and technique between them. The guy was a very good and experienced player, but the lady was weak in all aspects. This lead to a very uneven match, as we both started targeting the lady more to get some points. The strategy worked but she got increasingly frustrated. At some point, during play, she randomly asked me if I’m married to my partner. I told her I wasn’t and she remarked “sure you’re not, no one would want to marry you“. I was startled. Not just by the remark itself, but also by the numerous levels it was wrong on. We won but it’s still a bad memory.

On another occasion, I was playing a final match in a beginners’ singles tournament. I was up a set (6-1) and it looked like a comfortable win. My opponent was a great retriever and played a fair game.  But at that point, a friend of my opponent’s from the stands told her loudly that she didn’t come to see her lose. And then continued by telling the other viewers that I have no talent and the sport would be better off if I played beach racket tennis instead. This is what that is:

beach racket tennis is supposed to be an insult to tennis players.

Luckily I won, but that didn’t feel very good either. (By the way, beach racket tennis is really fun and you should try it if you get a chance. It also helps improve your volley skills.)

Winning at all costs

This one can have a wide spectrum of manifestations. In my books, it covers many things from lowering your level of play intentionally, to downright cheating. One could argue that in professional sports this doesn’t apply and I would listen to that argument carefully, without much to counter-propose other than some romantic BS. People make a living (big or small) out of results, they have been through hell to make it and I can’t judge. But when it comes to amateur tennis, there is really no reason to try and win at all costs. Not only does it kill the sport and its appeal, it also hinders your own development as a player.

In my tennis journey, I mostly struggle to overcome one of my greatest challenges, my fear of losing and lately I succeed more often than not. But sometimes I find it harder to overcome some of the above and continue to just enjoy the competition. Let me know in the comments if you have similar experiences and how you dealt with them! (To comment, hit the little icon next to the star underneath)

Featured image by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

See also: Morning vs. Evening workout pros and cons.

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