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The Duality Of The Solitary

(Presse Sports)

An ode to the people behind the players.

Tennis is a lonely sport. Arguably, the loneliest sport; excluding team sports for obvious reasons, no other sport comes close to tennis in terms of time spent alone during play. Swimming, track and field, gymnastics - individual sports that cover a larger area - all happen so quickly that there’s no time to waste on the thought. Table tennis, badminton, and squash - the other main racquet sports - all happen in such close proximity to your opponent that on an odd point you might even feel the sweat fly off them. Truly, tennis stands alone in loneliness. In no other sport do you spend so much time in so much empty space, approximately 80 feet from your opponent at any given moment.   

To the average spectator, this probably seems a strange notion; how can it be lonely when your every stroke is being watched by a crowd of people? And more to the point, why would the word “lonely” even enter the athlete’s vernacular? Surely the tennis player has more important things to think about than their current social climate. Yet ask some of the players on tour, current or former, and they’ll back up this claim. 

Andre Agassi, one of the greatest American tennis players, said in his biography: 

“Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement”, adding, “People sometimes mention the track and field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They’re inches away. In tennis you’re on an island. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him,but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else.”  

And yet just as the solitary nature of playing tennis is a truth, so to is the duality of the process of learning tennis. It’s somewhat ironic that the path taken to get to this place of seclusion is so essentially tied to another person – the coach. Of course, every other sport has coaches, and every professional athlete has, at one point or another, had a coach. 

But just as no sport is as lonely as tennis, so to in no other sport does the coach play as crucial a role, especially at the developmental stage. With sports like basketball, soccer, and hockey, one can get better just by improving dexterity and control with the tools. With football and baseball all you seem to need is someone who can catch or throw with reasonable skill to be able to practice (at least one element of the game). With the smaller racquet sports it is possible to imagine one improving even marginally from hitting against a wall, given the smaller measurements of the courts. 

Tennis allows for none of these. There is no benefit to dexterity (the only control that can be developed is from hitting directly with someone else), you can’t truly replicate the feeling of receiving a ball by hitting against a wall, and it’s true that to improve you usually have to hit with someone better than you – someone who can throw or catch with even passable skill can help in football or baseball if you don’t have a partner, but someone with passable skill at tennis can be more a detriment than a benefit. 

It should be clear that I’m not trying to negate the role of the coach in other sports – a huge part of learning to play a sport is improving one’s technique and strategic thinking, and in every sport the coach plays a significant role in these facets. But there are ways to improve or begin the process of learning in other sports that tennis is not afforded. To put it simply, if you don’t have someone on the other side of the net who can play tennis, you’re not going to be playing tennis. If tennis is an island, your coach is Wilson the Volleyball.    

It’s funny to think that the coach spends the exact same amount of time on the court as the player. Countless hours spent feeding balls, analyzing technique, yelling motivations, setting up drills, and picking up the same balls you just fed. Yet in matches they can spend none of the time on court with you. 

In many ways a coach is like a father – they teach you how to play the game, how to build on your strengths, and how to behave sportingly. They might chastise you when you don’t, but at the end of the day they’ll always be in your corner. And just like real life, when it comes down to it, they can’t hold your hand. They can only train you to take it on as best you can. The right coach can make all the difference in a player’s life, whether that player is learning to hold a racquet for the first time or trying to win their 14th Grand Slam. Ask anyone who’s played tennis, and they’ll likely be able to recall at least one coach who made a difference in their lives, as well as a few who really did not.   

I remember the first coach for me who made a difference. His name was Jon Kemp. I think I was 13 years old when I first started my weekly lessons with him on Court 4 at the Ladies Recreation Club at 4:30 p.m. every Tuesday. I remember that I honestly didn’t like tennis before I started my lessons with him, and didn’t for some time after. It was a weekly chore – something to appease my dad, who’d loved tennis for years and years. I remember Jon telling me to start watching tennis matches because I would start to like the sport more, and I recall going on to the family computer at 4:20pm every Tuesday to BBC.com to search up some of the weekly tennis results. I’d memorize a few and recite them to him at the beginning of each week, making sure to strain for some of the details and get a few wrong each time so as not to rouse his suspicions. I have no doubt he knew I had never actually watched the matches, but he never let on, and at some point the searching stopped and the watching actually commenced, and before I knew it, I was genuinely enjoying tennis.

I have a dozen memories associated with Jon – I remember one time during our group lesson (Thursday evenings) that, while he was trying to teach me to kick the racquet up for the second serve, I brought it straight down onto his head by accident. His face went red as he wrinkled it up and bottled in a yell, and he raced off court. I stood there stunned, along with my three other companions, unable to comprehend the magnitude of such an event. When he returned five minutes later, he just grinned – “My fault, I was in the wrong place”. 

I remember him catching me one afternoon and handing me a rolled up poster, telling me that he found this in his office and that I’d like it. It was a Wilson poster of Roger Federer at Wimbledon, both arms up in triumph, with the words “15-Time Grand Slam Champion Roger Federer, The Greatest of All Time”. That same poster is taped to my wall above the desk I’m sitting at as I write this. And I remember that when he told me he was leaving the LRC and moving to Australia, I cried that evening in the shower like a toddler. Jon was the coach who made me love tennis. I don’t know how he did it, or when he did it, but something he did changed the way I felt about watching and playing the sport, and for that I can’t thank him enough.   

For Roger Federer, the first coach who made a difference was likely Peter Carter, the Australian tennis player and coach who started coaching Federer at the age of nine and brought him to the brink of international stardom and a top fifty world ranking. Carter died tragically in a car crash in South Africa in August 2002, and it decimated Federer. The Swiss star received the news while playing in the Tennis Masters Series in Toronto, and bowed out in his doubles following the news, wearing a black armband in Carter’s honor. Federer said of Carter, “We spent a lot of time together, since I was a boy,” adding that he could “never thank him enough for everything that he gave to me. Thanks to him I have my entire technique and coolness.” When Federer won in Vienna, his first title following Carter’s death, he said with glistening eyes during the trophy presentation, “I dedicate this title to him.” At every Australian Open since 2005, Federer has sent Bob and Diana Carter, Peter’s parents, an all-expense paid itinerary, including first-class flight tickets, bookings in the same hotel as Federer, and winners’ parties, as well as two spots in his players box for his matches. 

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Another touching connection between coach and player happened at the Australian Open in 1995, in Pete Sampras’ quarterfinal match with Jim Courier. Sampras’ coach, Tim Gullikson, had collapsed during a practice session a week earlier, was hospitalized, and then flown home for further testing. Holding his feelings in for the early part of the week and the match, an emotional and two-sets-to-love-down Sampras clawed his way back to a fifth set. At 1-0 at the changeover, a fan yelled, “do it for your coach”, at which point tears began to roll down Sampras’ face, and he wept into his towel. With Sampras heaving on center court 30-0 up on his serve, Jim Courier gently joked from across the net, “Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow.” Sampras would hit two more aces between bouts of tears to take the game and subsequently the match.

       

And then there are the literal fathers out there who first stuck a racquet in their child’s hand, and tossed them their first tennis ball. As significant as the bond between coach and player, I don’t think anything quite compares to being coached by your father, no matter what sport you play. There are more memories than I could possibly do justice to, so I’ll keep it to one.   

Court 3, LRC. A fast dark green hard court with an uncannily high bounce, 7 p.m., on any given school night in any given year of high school. I warm up, unpack the tennis bag, and pull out a pair of shoes, then a pair of white tennis shorts, going beige-y with years of use, and a standard gray Nike top one size too big. Then comes the blue ‘Big Bertha’ hat he always wears when he plays tennis, even though it’s a golf hat, and he never plays golf (never questioned that actually). And finally, two squeegee looking blobs that keep his glasses on his face. I hear the gate open, see him waddle in completely inappropriately dressed – dark gray suit, formal shoes, tie loosened – because he came straight from work to play tennis with me. We use the same racquet too, Wilson K-Factor Six-One Tour 90, Federer’s own weapon of choice. A pop of a new can of balls, a quick change, a light ruffle of my hair, a smile. Tennis.

I know this article comes dangerously close to being a diary entry. If you told me when I started to write that I’d wax poetic for two thousand words on the wonder of the tennis coach, I wouldn’t have believed it. I guess it defies logic just a little bit, to feel this strongly about someone you’ve really just spent a lot of time 75 feet away from. So maybe I won’t justify it. I think it speaks for itself. 

So to all the coaches out there – thank you. Thank you for feeding us balls, setting up cones, running us ragged. Thank you for pushing us, analyzing us, filming us, fighting us, teaching us, believing in us. And most of all, thank you for being there. It is not an understatement to say that we owe you everything. We wouldn’t be here without you. 

To Dad, Happy Father’s Day. Thank you for being my best friend, on and off the court. Thank you for being my volleyball.     

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Curtis Fraser.

SQuiz
Who was Federer's first coach?
Created 6/20/16
  1. Peter Lundgren
  2. Paul Annacone
  3. Peter Carter
  4. Stefan Edberg

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