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Ending My Tennis Fast

In my second to most recent blog post, I bravely (if I do say so myself) declared that I was quitting tennis. How long did that last?

… 16 days. I think.

Granted, that 17th day I really only watched a couple games of a Rafael Nadal match (when I thought he might go down 2 sets to love). And I skipped out on the first day of the French Open entirely.

The first full match I watch, if I remember correctly, was an incredible match between fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych and French wild card (in both senses of the phrase “wild card”) Gael Monfils. That match was the kind of match I watch tennis for. Monfils won the first 2 sets. Berdych won the second 2. And then, improbably, Monfils wound up winning the 5th. It was incredibly exciting.

Why did I start watching again? Well, for a couple of reasons. Number one, I really, really love tennis.

In my time without tennis, I didn’t really miss it, believe it or not. I was pretty soured on it. It seemed like all tennis was good for was breaking my heart and making me act like an obnoxious brat when my favorite didn’t win.

But I was actually a little curious about the Monfils-Berdych match. Both of them are extraordinarily talented players. Monfils had just returned from a very long injury layoff (thus his need for a wild card just to get into the main draw of the French). Berdych had a very tough draw, starting with Monfils, and had he survived that match, he would have had to play Ernests Gulbis next. And Gulbis is another extraordinarily talented player who has recently rededicated himself to the game, with the results to back it up.

I had never really cared too much for Monfils. He always seemed like he wasn’t playing tennis to actually win, but just to put on a show. I’m kind of the opinion that if all you want is to put on a show, go become a clown or a tightrope walker. Don’t be a tennis player.  Be a tennis player if you actually want to win.

But this match showed a different Monfils. This one clearly wanted to win. He fed off the energy of the crowd, even when the match began to slip away from him upon Berdych’s clawing his way back into it. And when he did win, it felt really important. And special.

And I was reminded of why I loved tennis.

The sad truth is that it has been a long time since I was able to truly watch a match and just enjoy it for what it is, rather than how it would affect my favorite player. It’s also why I haven’t been as invested in women’s tennis lately. I haven’t had a player I could really get behind since Kim Clijsters retired. The closest I can come these days is Petra Kvitova, and she is as up-and-down as it is possible for a player to be. I have many players I enjoy watching and respect tremendously, and I have many others whose talents I admire. But aside from Petra, there isn’t a single player that I root for no matter what. And I still don’t feel incredibly invested in Petra, probably because she loses so many matches that are so winnable for her.

After the Monfils-Berdych match, I thought, you know what? There is so much to enjoy about tennis aside from results. There’s a reason I fell in love with this game, and it wasn’t simply because Stefan Edberg won Wimbledon in 1988. It’s because this is a beautiful game, one that you can’t just run the clock out on when you compete. You have to earn your victories, point by point, game by game, set by set. I fell in love with tennis because of strokes of genius: aces and unreturnable serves, untouchable volleys, forehand and backhand drive winners, overhead smashes. I love tennis because, although you can often predict who will win some matches with reasonable certainty, there are many others that are completely unpredictable. And even the “predictable” matches can become upsets.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands can beat Li Na. Jamie Hampton can beat Petra Kvitova. Tommy Haas can fail to convert 12 match points against John Isner but finally convert his 13th. Tommy Robredo can come back from 2 sets to love down 3 straight times. Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet — two players who have suffered through their share of heartbreaking losses — can put on the match of the tournament.

(If you said “WHO?!”, that’s my point exactly.)

I have found myself throughout this French Open enjoying every single match I watched. Even if they had nothing to do with Novak Djokovic. Even if they were women’s matches. You know what? The women can put on one heck of a show. Somehow, I had forgotten that.

One of my favorite matches of this tournament was actually a straight-set affair between Sara Errani and Agniezka Radwanska in the quarterfinals. While Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova were battling in a topsy-turvy affair at the same time, Errani and Radwanska were quietly involved in an outstanding match of “chess tennis.” They were using every part of the court, hitting every angle imaginable, hitting volleys and lobs with beautiful touch. Even though Errani won in straight sets, the match result was in doubt until the very last point. And it was some of the most gorgeous tennis I had ever seen.

Now, you may be wondering about the Novak Factor. After all, it was my reactions to Novak’s matches that had me decide to put myself into “tennis time-out” in the first place. I wasn’t even sure, at first, if I wanted to watch his matches at all during the French Open. I didn’t trust myself yet.

Novak’s first-round match was rain delayed several times, and I was steadfastly determined not to watch for quite some time. Then, when he was up 2 sets to love and was serving for the match, I decided I’d let myself watch for 10 minutes, just to see how I handled it.

I handled it fine. Granted, Novak served it out pretty easily. But still. My guts remained unclenched.

During the days leading up to the French Open, I regarded it with a dull feeling of impending doom. I was so negative about the whole tournament. My favorite players never won. The French crowds were inexplicable, and at times they were inexplicably rude. Rafael Nadal — a player I respected but didn’t love — would undoubtedly win again, just as he had done 7 out of the previous 8 years, and Novak’s heart would be broken again. I hated, hated, hated the French Open.

But after Novak’s first round match, I suddenly snapped.

Why was I being so negative?

In every other part of my life, I try hard to be a positive person. I try to look on the bright side of just about everything. Why on earth did I have a little gloom cloud over my head regarding one of my favorite hobbies — that is, following tennis?

I couldn’t answer that question. And that’s when I decided I was going to stop. Cold turkey. No more negativity.

The French Open? It was a beautiful tournament. The red clay looked so lovely. Paris in the springtime is simply gorgeous. The French people could be inexplicably rude, but they had passion. And clay court tennis is so much fun to watch.

As for Novak Djokovic, my favorite player? I declared the following on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/Nic_Leigh/status/339461202306547712

Basically, I decided that I was done predicting gloom and doom. Why not choose to believe the best — that Novak would win?

I tempered it with a truism I knew regardless: that win or lose, Novak would remain my favorite player. I knew that losing wouldn’t kill him. And it wouldn’t kill me, either. No matter what, both of us would be okay.

So armed with these dual discoveries — that tennis is one heck of a fun sport no matter who is playing, and that positivity is much more enjoyable than negativity — I have been watching the French Open.

From time to time, things have been dicey for Novak. In his fourth round match – which was played just two days after he learned of the death of his childhood coach — he lost the first set. I didn’t watch that set because I was barely awake, but I was astonished at a lot of the vitriol I saw from fellow Novak fans on my Twitter timeline.

Many of them were beyond frustrated that Novak lost the first set.

I understand feeling badly about that set. But nearly everyone knew he was grieving. And they seemed to be expecting Novak to play as if nothing was wrong! That stunned me.

Remarkably, even after he lost the first set, not only was I not worried, but I had a strong feeling he would come back and win. And that was exactly what he did, with relative ease.

Since the first round that I watched only the last few games of, Novak has won most of his matches in a straightforward fashion. The set he lost in his fourth-round match has been his only lost set. The only really tense moments have come in that lost set and in his most recent match, his quarterfinal match against Tommy Haas, where he needed a 2nd set tiebreaker and two attempts to serve out the match in the third.

Amazingly enough, I have not turned into Nicole Hyde in any of these matches. Not when he’s struggled to close, not when he’s lost his serve at a time when I thought it was most inopportune, not when he’s been pushed to a tiebreaker or when he’s lost a set. I have achieved what I honestly did not think was possible — I have watched Novak’s matches like a normal (if perhaps overly invested) fan.

How has this been possible?

Number one, I think the fact that I was willing to let go of tennis for a while helped me to realign my priorities. My break from tennis made me realize that while there is nothing wrong with enjoying a sport, you can’t let it turn you into someone you don’t like.

Number two, I became more aware of my reactions to a match, and I went out of my way to combat what would normally become angry, out-of-control emotions. Anytime any part of a match of Novak’s hasn’t gone his way, I’ve taken several deep breaths and given myself miniature pep talks. An example: “It’s okay. Novak can still do this. It’s just one game.” Or “Even if Novak loses this set, he can still take the next one.” Some people might feel like doing this will set them up for extreme disappointment.  But I think I’ve learned that if I don’t keep feeding myself those positive feelings, my negativity will swallow me whole and turn me into Nicole Hyde.

Nicole Jeckyll will get a real test on Friday, when Novak gets his stiffest test of the tournament: a semifinal with Nadal. I know this is a winnable match for him. I know he has to his best. I know he can be at his best. But if it doesn’t work out the way I want, I also know that Novak will be fine. I know he will give it everything he has, and he will walk away, no matter what, knowing that he fought his hardest and honored his late coach as best as he could.

And that is what I will tell myself, should the going get tough or should the match not turn out the way I want.

Postscript: One more thing I have decided: I will not act like a jerk during this match. I have always respected Nadal, and I also have many friends who love Nadal. I refuse to tear him down no matter what happens. If Nadal wins, good for him. I will be the gracious loser Novak always is. If Novak wins? I’ll offer my condolences to my Nadal friend fans, and I will not gloat or call Nadal names.

The reason I’m laying this out there is because I will absolutely not tolerate anyone who does otherwise on my Twitter timeline. And I’m talking about fellow Novak fans here. I don’t care if a Novak fan wants to act like a brat over the result of this match. But I don’t want to see it. I have decided that if anyone either calls Nadal nasty names (should Novak lose) or gloats (should Novak win), I’m unfollowing them. So if you’re reading this, and you’re a Novak fan I have unfollowed after Friday’s match, you’ll not need to question why.

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