Tennis and life

Almost a year ago, I went to see the doctor for my annual physical – what I have started to call my “’OK, so what medicines do I have to take now?’ visit” – and the nurse took my blood pressure and said five words that you probably don’t want a nurse to say after taking your blood pressure: “Oh, this can’t be right.” It is possible, I suppose, that ‘Oh, this can’t be right,” could be GOOD news, as in “Oh, this can’t be right because it’s so great.” But somewhere along the way, doctor’s visits stopped providing good news, at least in my experience. The best I could hope for was neutral news like, 'Well, you're no worse than last year."

Anyway, she took my blood pressure again, and she looked at the numbers, and she didn’t say anything at all but her face said, “Oh, this can’t be right.” And her feet said, “Um, I need to go get the doctor this instant” because she bolted out of the room at about the speed of ER nurses on television. Within a minute or so, the doctor was in there, and this time HE wanted to take my blood pressure.

Two thoughts clanked around in my head:

1. It’s possible that my blood pressure is high.

2. Man, this is the fastest I’ve EVER seen a doctor, including the time I had kidney stones. High blood pressure seems a pretty good strategy to avoid that annoying and interminable wait in the examination room where there’s nothing even to read. The doctor took my blood pressure, maintained a nice poker face, and said with the equanimity and calm of a commercial pilot: “Well, we really need to get your blood pressure down.” He prescribed me some blood pressure medicine which I was to pick up on the way home ("On the way home!" he repeated), and he told me to get a blood pressure machine, and didn’t say anything else during the examination. Before I left, though, he reiterated that I needed to get some blood pressure medicine, like, immediately.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” he said in a calm, easy voice. “But your blood pressure is in the stroke range. A couple of points higher, and I would have had you admitted into a hospital.”

As powerful as those five words “Oh, this can’t be right” might be, the two-word combination of “stroke range” carries a significantly heavier punch. I got the medicine, got the blood pressure machine, got my blood pressure under control fairly quickly. And you can probably guess what I did next.

Right. Nothing.

About a month ago, I put on T-shirt that used to fit me. It didn’t fit anymore. It wasn’t one of my favorite T-shirts. It wasn’t even a particularly nice T-shirt. But when I put that T-shirt on, and it didn’t fit, something just snapped in my brain. Something in there just screamed out, “ENOUGH!” Human motivation is as mysterious as love or the weather in Omaha.

And I decided to change my life. I decided, at age 47, to renew my efforts to become the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

* * *

My tennis career, if you can call it that, ended with 16-year-old human wall named Manesh. It began when I was 14 years old, and we moved from Cleveland to an apartment complex in Charlotte, N.C. The complex (though there was nothing “complex” about it) had tennis courts, and ruling those tennis courts was an 857-year-old man named George who gave lessons for five dollars a pop. I like to think of George as my own personal Mr. Miyagi, with the slight differences being:

1. George wasn’t particularly engaging.

2. George wasn’t a particularly good teacher.

3. George looked like he was going to have a stroke every time he went on the court.

Still, George did teach me the basics of how to hit a tennis ball, and the truth is that I had something of a knack for it. Tennis was the only sport I played where, within a short time, I was clearly better than my friends. My childhood illusions never had time to grow in other sports because I always knew people who were better than me. Barring a miraculous series of events -- being best friends with Derek Jeter, for instance -- you are probably not going to become a Major League infielder if your best friend is way better a baseball than you. You are probably not going to become an NFL wide receiver if you are (optimistically) the fourth-best receiver in neighborhood games. You are probably not going to become an NBA point guard if you are no better than the third best player in the car ride to the gym.

But tennis – I felt like I was pretty clearly the best tennis player in my circle, and while that might have been because nobody else in my circle especially liked playing tennis, well, so what? Best among my friends could lead to best at the school. Best at the school could lead to best in the city. Best in the city could lead to best in the state, which could lead to best in the United States, which could lead to best in the world (at least in those days). Just five short steps to greatness. I practiced and dreamed in equal measure.

Once I joined the East Mecklenburg High School tennis team, I had a spectacular triumph … an 8-6 superset loss to one of the better players at the school and in the city. Yeah, right, it was actually a loss and, in truth, he had a terrible day, double-faulting away games, But the coach happened to see me in one of those rare games when I was making first serves (I had a powerful but spectacularly erratic first serve), and he jumped me like 20 places on the tennis ladder. He told me that I had a real chance to be one of the starters, and he set me up to play a challenger match with the aforementioned Manesh. I got the sense this was sort of like setting me up with one of those tomato cans that Mike Tyson fought when his boxing reputation needed to be replenished.

I don’t want to exaggerate, but Manesh was 2-foot-11 and weighed 13 pounds. He hit the ball so softly that it would sometimes bounce behind him because of the rotation of the earth. My clear thought before the match began was this: The only thing in question is the score. I was right. Sort of.

See, here was the problem with Manesh: Once the match began, every one of those bloopy, droopy, gloopy, poopy shot he hit went over the net. Every one. They would usually go JUST over the net and bounce up BEGGING to be crushed. But they went over the net just the same. I would hit a drop shot. He would chase it down and bloop it over. I would hit a lob. He would run back and bloop it over. I would hit a put-away volley. He would not let it put away, run it down, bloop it over.

I’m not sure exactly when I stopped trying to win the match and instead tried to hit Manesh with the ball. I guess it was when I was behind 5-0. To describe it as a meltdown is an insult to the word “meltdown.” I disintegrated. I evaporated. I degenerated. You know that thing that happened to the Nazi at the end of “Last Crusade?” I did that , leaving behind only a single wristband. With every Manesh bloop, and every enraged forehand I hit 20 feet long, my future became clearer and clearer. I wasn’t going to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world. I wasn’t going to be the No. 1 tennis player in the United States or in the state or in the city or on this team. It was my last sports illusion, and it blew up like Alderaan. Manesh was my Death Star.

I more or less gave up on tennis then. I still picked it up from time to time but without passion. To bring in one more movie reference, I felt about tennis the way Alvy Singer felt about homework once he found out the Universe is expanding. What’s the point?

* * *

I’ve written here before about various battles with weight … though that is usually the realm of my brother Tony. He lost more than 200 pounds in what I consider an utterly remarkable achievement. I have at times lost 25 or 30. It never sticks, though. I like pasta and French fries way too much. And I don’t like to work out.

It’s the second of those that has been the great challenge for me. My buddy Chardon Jimmy likes to say, you can maintain your weight if you work out, and you can maintain your weight if you eat well, but to LOSE weight at our age you have to do both. Every since turning 40 I have found that to be utterly, painfully and thoroughly true. A distinct pattern began to emerge every time I took a pass at healthfulness.

Step 1: Begin a dieting and exercise program.

Step 2: Lose weight.

Step 3: Start getting sluggish on the exercise program.

Step 4: Stop losing weight.

Step 5: Ask ‘What’s the point of eating well if I’m not even losing weight?”

Step 6: Pasta. French fries.

Step 7: Gain weight.

Step 8: Go to Step 1.

The thing that was striking to me was that, without exception, I stopped exercising BEFORE I stopped dieting. I couldn’t figure myself out. I tried all sorts of different things. I tried running – tried that Couch 2 5K thing. Barely made it off the couch. I worked with a couple of different trainers. Both great. Neither lasted. We bought a treadmill. I hit that thing just about every day for a month, then stopped entirely. Friends told me about runner’s highs (“You just have to stick with it”) and classes (“You’ve got to try cross-fit”) and various supposedly fun videos (“Zumba!”) and holistic things they felt sure would appeal to me (“You would love yoga, man”). But, none of those things stuck, and the frustrating part was I could not understand why.

And this gets to the heart of something I’ve come to believe: It seems to me that the only way you can make a real change in your life is if you know yourself. I think about my father. For 40 years, he smoked a pack or two of Kent cigarettes every day. Then one day, he just quit. Like that. He said it was because Tony had asked him to, but I’m not sure about that. My other brother David and I had asked him to quit about 50 billion times already. So the only two options are:

1. He loves Tony more than us.

2. He had his own reasons.

I believe No. 2 (it’s better that way), and I believe that all of us need to find our own motivation. Diet books, trainers, friends with suggestions – they can be life-altering IF they click with your motivation. And if they don’t click, they don’t work. You have to understand yourself. You have to know not how you SHOULD feel but how you DO feel. If someone had asked me what would be a bigger motivation, a doctor telling me I was in danger of a stroke or a T-shirt fitting a bit too tight, it’s obvious what I THINK is the right answer. But, in practice, the right answer is the other thing.

In any case, after the T-shirt thing happened, I finally understood something about myself: I need a goal. No, it’s more than that. I need a dream. I have long known that I can’t work out for the sake of working out – it doesn’t connect with my mind. So I gave myself goals. Run a 5K. Drop 40 pounds. Stuff like that. Even this time, I began with the goal of dropping a couple of sizes so that the T-shirt would fit.

But then, finally, it occurred to me that none of that is enough. Because after I ran the 5K, what next? Another 5K? A 10K? A marathon? I knew myself well enough to know I wasn’t going to do any of those things. Not enough. And if I lost 40 pounds, then what? Lose another 20? Maintain? Not enough. Even the T-shirt fitting thing is fleeing -- I'm only a few French fries and spaghetti dinners away from plumping back up.

And that’s when I realized the mistake I had been making all along. I didn’t need a realistic objective. I didn’t respond to a rational target.

No, I needed something bigger, something ridiculous, something beyond the boundaries of sanity and in the realm of those childhood dreams I let go of 30-plus years ago.

I needed to become the best tennis player in the world.

* * *

Greg and Bob are the tennis pros at the JCC where I play tennis. Greg was once one of the top juniors in the United States – he was actually ranked No. 2 in the country in doubles, though that might be at least in part because his playing partner was a guy named Jim Courier – and Bob was a good college player, and his brother is a chair umpire on the ATP Tour. I’ve been hitting around with those guys – mostly Bob – for about a year now.

The first time I hit around with Bob, I had to stop three times during the hour. The first two times I felt like I was going to throw up. The third time, I believe I did throw up. It was humiliating. But Bob is a Northeast Ohio guy, so we talked some Indians baseball during the awkward breaks, and he told me not to quit, and that it would get better. No part of me believed that.

The next few times we hit, I would still feel like throwing up but, more disturbing, I had this dull but persistent pain in my back/hip. And so, repeatedly, I would have to stop and we would talk Browns football. It was fun still. A few of the old tennis feelings came back. I started hitting the ball a little bit better. I started to get a little bit of my wind back. I asked my doctor about the back/hip pain; he suggested a few stretching exercises and left me with the impression that hip pain was directly tied to the 40 or so extra pounds I shouldn’t be carrying.

In any case, it was pretty good. I really do enjoy playing tennis, I’m not bad at it, and each time out is a little bit of an escape for me. It’s funny, I have been having numerous conversations lately with friends about what takes them outside themselves – that is, what do you do that allows you to escape from work and emails and traffic and the daily grind. They talked about going to the beach, going to the lake, going to the mountains, golf, hiking, biking, running, fishing, whatever. Those things are fun, but none of them take me away. Tennis does.

All of these things clicked together a month ago with that stupid T-shirt incident. Who knows why? I decided right then and there that I needed to dedicate myself to becoming the best tennis player on earth. I didn’t tell this to Bob or Greg (and they don’t read this blog, so I should be fine there) but I started to do things. I joined the USTA – something that was WAY harder than it should have been (Um, USTA, you might want to rethink that Web site). I bought a few tennis things. My wonderful wife, as a late anniversary gift, bought me a tennis ball machine. I joined a JCC doubles team.

And I began. I went on a weight-loss diet. I carved out time for a daily workout schedule – mostly by doing fewer Kansas City Royals blog posts. I wrote up a practice plan. I had to hit so many serves. I had to hit so many forehands. I had to hit so many slice backhands, so many topspin backhands. I began working with Bob and Greg on strategy and technique – I didn’t want strategies and techniques that would make me a BETTER player, I wanted stuff that would make me a GREAT player. Grip changes. Thought changes. Swing changes. I began working out with tennis specific drills.

How is it going? You can probably guess how it’s going for a 47-year-old man who not too long ago was throwing up because he could not handle an hour of basic tennis drills. If you are a tennis player of any worth at all, you could undoubtedly beat me.

But how is it going? The back/hip doesn't hurt anymore. I’m down 20 or 25 pounds and losing more all the time. I can fast walk/jog two miiles without vomiting. My movement is getting better. My serve is a lot more consistent. I have played two doubles matches – my partner Alan and I are 2-0, and have not yet come close yet to dropping a set.

The T-shirt fits better (but not quite well enough).

And, in the craziest turn of all, I’m still driven. I'm still focused and happy and don't want to stop. I can tell you I want to drop another 25 pounds, and I want to get off the medicine, and I want to be able to go swimming with my kids without feeling like that white blob from “Hero 6,” and all that. I want that T-shirt to just hang loosely on me like it once did. Of course I want those things.

But I’m not going for any of those things. I’m going for No. 1. Thirty years after Manesh, I’m going for No. 1. Realistically, I think could get Djokovic at, say, the 2017 U.S. Open. Hey, he’ll be 30 by then.