Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Autumn Tennis

One of the best parts of this summer has been my twice-a-week tennis habit, typically with an old college roommate, with a mutual friend of ours, or with my younger sister (who is the reason I started to play tennis when she asked me during her freshman year if I would play with her so she could try out for the team).  I picked up a new racquet, a case of 24 cans of balls, and finally started figuring out my serve (which, at its best, goes in at around 100 mph - not fast by pro standards, but still pretty darn fast).  After adjusting to the new racquet, I spent the entire month of July hitting my forehands harder and more accurately than I'd ever hit them before, and developing my backhand into a moderately reliable stroke (as opposed to a complete and utter liability).

This was in sharp comparison to the previous summer, in which I spent most of my time with the poetry team and in preparing for the upcoming year of teaching.

My senior year of college, I got the privilege of being an assistant coach to a high school girls' varsity tennis team, thanks to one of the English teachers at the school where I did my student teaching.  It was the first chance I'd had to really play tennis since my sophomore year of college, when I severely strained the tendons and ligaments in both elbows via a combination of rowing, squash, and ignoring pain as much as I could.

By the time all the damage was done, I could barely throw a baseball or grip a plate full of food in one hand.  It was really a rather potent combination, which took my entire junior year of college to heal properly.

However, I healed through a regimen of forced rest (easing my way back into physical activity with moderate amounts of squash and lots of rest), and was finally healthy enough my senior year that I could again play tennis regularly.

When I moved to Kansas, though, I left the tennis courts behind (the town in which I lived had two concrete courts, with wobbly not-quite-accurate lines and a too-low net; the math teacher and I played a few times, but not enough to be meaningful.

After that nine-month hiatus, returning to Lincoln was nice.  The University has several very nice hard-courts with ample lighting, and I had found a few willing opponents.

With fall fast approaching (it's here already, actually), I know that it's only a matter of time before the weather turns too cold for tennis to be a viable option on any but the rarest of warm streaks.  However, it's become clear that I'll have to hang up my racquet a little sooner than that, as the elbow pain has returned. 

It's not anywhere near as sharp as it once was, but over the course of the last month, I've noticed it more and more as my groundstokes lost their pop and my serve all but deserted me.  Now, I can occasionally hit a big forehand, but I haven't been able to do so reliably since before the US Open, and have been relying more and more on slice and loopy topspin just to keep the point going (can you say "pusher"?).

This is a difficult place to be in, because I really do love playing tennis.  Between the sheer elegance of the game (when played well, I'd liken it to ballet) and the strategies therein, the satisfaction of a well-struck ball, and knowing that I'm going to get a good 90 minutes of exercise, it's difficult, if not impossible, to not love.

However, I also know that I play, I'm actively hurting myself and setting myself up for a life of pain, suffering and despair (), at least in my right elbow.

There was a time when I'd have kept playing up until I was incapacitated (I remember a track practice where I pulled my hamstring at the start of practice, and continued running, and after a while limping and hopping around the track until my coach forced me to stop), but I am older now, and either wiser, or more concerned with survival now that I know that I am neither invincible nor timeless (though I remain unconvinced of the first point).

For now, though, it's time to reduce the time I spend playing, to settle for trying to win points without hitting big forehands, and to get ready for a winter without racquets.  And perhaps it is this winter that I will finally make good on what I should have been doing all along: pushups, pullups and core-strength work (I cannot afford a gym membership right now, though perhaps I'll be able to in a few months).

Or it might be that this is the winter where I finally admit my body's limitations (it's not uncommon for me to go for a stretch of a few days either without eating enough or sleeping enough; in fact, it is extremely common). 

But more likely, this represents what is only a temporary hiatus, determined mostly by pain tolerance; what's a little elbow pain, when compared to the sheer thrill of smacking an inside-out forehand winner?