A Tale of Two Octobers
Last fall, I was eagerly packing my bag for what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the USTA National Campus. My Women’s 40 & Over 3.0 tennis team based out of Wilton, CT, had won the right to represent New England at the 2019 USTA League Nationals Championships on beautiful Lake Nona in Orlando, FL.
Sitting in the terminal at JFK back then, I reflected back on the months that led up to that moment. Certainly, when my team took to the courts in October 2018 for our first match of the season, no one even remotely imagined that in October 2019 we’d be playing the last match of the season at Nationals in Orlando. According to USTA, during the 2018-2019 season there were 1,804 teams in the 40 & Over Women’s 3.0 division, which translates into a total of 26,331 players all competing for a chance to be crowned the best team in the nation. We were one of 17 regional teams and we were thrilled at the opportunity to compete at such a special venue.
October 2019: All Things Orange
My memory is flooded with images of bright, intense moments splashed everywhere with vibrant orange, the official color assigned to the New England teams competing at Nationals. It was a dazzling year which included a nail-biting Sectionals win where the first-place tie was decided in our favor; where we endured long and hot summer outdoor practices and clinics under the blazing sun; where countless flights, hotels, practice courts, and restaurant reservations were booked for the team in Florida. We entertained ourselves searching online for all things orange along with fun outings for last-minute orange manis/pedis. We packed our good luck gifts — the black sunglasses, socks, and orange wristbands we won at Sectionals, along with the white logo shirts donated by our home club — and we boarded the plane with our racquets.
Flying in from cold, gray and rainy JFK, the contrast couldn’t have been more shocking as I stepped off the plane into the bright sun and gentle breezes of Orlando. Some of us headed straight for a late al fresco dinner under the swaying palm trees and twinkling white lights and we delighted in the warm night air as we strolled back to our hotel.
Exciting Days at Nationals: Braving a Tropical Storm, Rocking the Photo Shoot, and Avoiding Alligators
By the time we took to the courts, emotions were understandably running high. How could anyone NOT be nervous at such an important event? But the staff at the national facility took great care to welcome everyone with open arms and make us feel — even if for just a short while — like we were really and truly rock stars of the tennis world. They showered us with extra commemorative USTA swag, and we were treated to a casual, fun night of food and fun where everyone gathered to socialize. We had a great time at our own professional outdoor photo shoot — in spite of the “beware of alligators” sign posted nearby.
The alligator warning served as a reminder that life in Florida is not all sunshine, beach, and palm trees. Mother Nature needed to remind us Nutmeggers that hurricanes are a very real threat in tropical climates like Orlando, and soon after arriving, all eyes turned to a storm churning away in the Gulf. Tropical Storm Nestor, as it officially came to be known, threatened to impact not only the arrival of many players still trying to fly in, but also the first day of matches. The folks at the national center have seen this all before so they took it in stride, reworking the agenda to reflect the new weather-related schedule changes. We captains had a tougher time adapting since we had to accommodate and play in a surreal sunrise kickoff match under the lights before the storm, and also move indoors to play shortened pro-set matches during the storm.
We may not have brought home the nationals champ title, but we had such a rewarding and exciting time seeing our hard work pay off to get us there, and it is truly an experience we will never forget. We returned with a sense of awe for what we had accomplished and memories that will be cherished forever. And besides, everyone agrees we definitely had the BEST team photo of all.
October 2020: One Muted Shade of Gray
The winter holidays flew by and we welcomed the new year still basking in the glow of our Nationals run. But as January slid into February and the Coronavirus fears ramped up, tennis life as we knew it came to a sudden halt in March. When Indian Wells was called off at the last minute, it didn’t take long for Wimbledon to follow and for both the French and US Open to issue drastically-revised schedules. For a while, confined to our homes and deprived even of the joy of watching the majors on tv, it seemed all was lost in terms of being able to enjoy tennis in any way, shape or form. Still in the clutches of winter temps in the northeast, we were transported to a strange place of extreme social isolation, barred from playing anywhere in the community. An apocalyptic shadow had eclipsed the once-sunny courts.
When local courts and facilities slowly reopened, I noticed that my subdued mood was evident even in my choice of clothing; I bypassed the usual vibrant clash of pink, turquoise and orange colors that defined my wardrobe, preferring instead darker ensembles of gray, navy and black.
Tennis in the New Normal
Strangely and rather unexpectedly, this forced downtime —without the pressure of competing — allowed many of us to think about our relationship to tennis in bold, new ways. Once everyone settled into the “new normal” of life in a pandemic, we discovered how to keep our love of tennis alive, even when isolated at home and practicing social distancing. Some ordered those wildly popular rebounders to use in their driveway while others opted for hitting balls against their garage door just like we did as kids decades ago. I have friends who welcomed the opportunity to incorporate more weight training, yoga, stretching, jogging and walking into their daily routines, things that often took an unfortunate backseat to matches and clinics in our busy pre-pandemic times.
It seems that rather than lamenting over the pad-locked tennis courts, many of us discovered that the forced break from playing tennis in the physical sense opened up imaginative “thought spaces” that allowed for unhurried contemplation of all things tennis. Possibly for the first time in my life, I actually had time to devote to tennis using a purely intellectual approach thanks to the books, magazines, videos, discussion groups, and information available across the different media. I became a better student of the game by analyzing, reading, watching and learning, all of which have helped me to appreciate the joy and beauty of the sport in refreshing ways.
I sensed that when I eventually did return to the courts, I would be accepting feedback more readily, asking new questions about tactics, and trying out new skills. It was like a reset occurred within me, allowing for a more open, curious, risk-taking mindset so that deeper questions emerged. And from within this new space, I realized that the exploration, growth, and joy of learning was more enjoyable than keeping tally of match wins and worrying about ratings. Maybe it’s also because the forced break carved out much-needed, extended opportunities to relax and pursue simple pleasures such as baking bread and doing puzzles with my kids as I adjusted to the slower pace of life.
It was such a subdued, introspective time. But when we were allowed to emerge from the cocoon-like protection of our homes and venture out again to the tennis courts — it was with the realization that this period of internal metamorphosis had opened my eyes to a different perspective, even if from the outside I was dressed in a drab, gray skirt.
The Journey Between Octobers
It has been quite a journey. The contrast between October 2019 and October 2020 couldn’t be any more striking and unbelievable than what we have actually lived through; my team went from the high point of playing at Nationals to the low point of worrying about the health and safety of ourselves and loved ones. We have seen passion, joy and excitement along with frustration, worry, isolation and heartache. And yet, there is so much to be appreciated from those spring and summer months leading up to October 2020, like the lengths to which we went to support one another and the ways we adapted to challenging situations. We have accomplished quite a lot, having persevered and incorporated new ideas and approaches that minimized risk for players returning to the courts. It is remarkable how much the tennis community has rallied and come together to adapt and make things work as best as possible for all. My connection to tennis has been like a life raft keeping me safely afloat in the rough sea of this global pandemic.
The journey has been a life-changing, important one we will never forget. In retrospect, I feel we have arrived at deeper levels of understanding, patience, and gratitude for the sport and the people we hold dear to our hearts. We have experienced the good with the bad and gone from highs to lows to arrive at a better sense of how much tennis impacts our well-being and our lives in a positive way.
Tennis great, Andre Agassi, once made this unique observation, “Tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love — the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.” And isn’t he right? Hasn’t this past year been like one grand, dramatic tennis match?
Let’s also not forget that the game of tennis is forever and always one that starts with love.