“No one feels bad for the girl who gets to travel the world hitting a tennis ball around. I wish that I was you.”
As I write this, my mind keeps drifting back to this comment that one of my good friends made fairly recently. While sympathy isn’t something I’m looking for – or think that I should receive for having the opportunity to pursue my sport as a career – it interests me just how many people have said things like this to me.
“Your life is so easy. You don’t have to get a real job.”
Or, one of my favorites: “You don’t have to do anything all day but play tennis.”
Let’s read that again. “You don’t have to do anything all day but play tennis.”
True, I’ll give you that. I don’t have to do anything all day but play tennis. But is this something that the general population should be jealous of? Is pursuing your sport as a career something that should be envied? Is it “easy”?
Yes. I get to go to fantastic, exotic, wonderful places around the world that most people can only dream of going to. But it’s far from a vacation, as I learned on my recent month-long trip to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, where I officially started my career as a professional tennis player.
I had played a few professional tournaments over the summers before returning to college, but this trip was the beginning of officially aspiring to be a professional athlete. And, looking back, I made a lot of mistakes – all centered around the same core concept of “professionalism.”
Egypt was filled with tests, many of which I failed. Twenty-six hours of traveling, 110 degree Fahrenheit weather, courts that I heavily disliked, a somewhat disrespectful attitude towards women, being on my own, playing tournaments for the first time since an injury, and a fantastic few days of food poisoning being just a few. (Thanks to whoever created Pepto Bismol.) Looking back, I realized that I often responded to these adversities by shutting down, by complaining about what was unfair, and by focusing on the things that were out of my control. A lack of professionalism, as my coach would say.
This isn’t to say that the trip was a failure. Although I didn’t come back with a ranking, as was the goal, I did come back with points in both singles and doubles, and a newfound appreciation for exactly what it takes to make it as a professional tennis player. It requires sacrifice, selfishness, and – most importantly – professionalism.
What exactly is professionalism? This was something that I asked myself many times while in Egypt, as my coach brought it up to me daily. I lost my matches because of a lack of professionalism, he’d write. Players play to win, you’re a professional now. That was a poor mental match. This is all cured by professionalism.
How was I not being professional? I was out here, in the middle of nowhere, working hard everyday. I was playing professional tournaments. Of course I was being professional.
It was just a mirage.
I was playing the professional tournaments, yes. I was working on my game everyday, sure. But I wasn’t doing the uncomfortable things – the things that are necessary to really be successful at a professional level. I lost a close three-set match to the first seed my first week there, and went sightseeing for an evening a few days later. Wrong? Not necessarily. Wrong for a professional? Absolutely. I wasn’t winning the tournaments. Sightseeing and fun things are for after tournaments.
This is where the whole “your life is amazing and easy and I wish I could be you” now boggles my mind. By far one the hardest lessons I have learned in my life thus far is this one concept of professionalism. Why? Because professionalism requires an extreme amount of sacrifice. It means staying in the hotel room in Egypt to rest instead of sightseeing. It means playing on fast courts and battling instead of getting frustrated and throwing in the towel because girls are outhitting you. It means being uncomfortable every single day.
As my coach said, “This whole professional life is uncomfortable. Nothing is comfortable about competing and attempting to make a living. The minute you do get comfortable in life, you’re DONE.”
If my trip to Egypt taught me one thing, it was that I can absolutely compete with girls at a professional level; but I have to change my mentality in order to do so. When I got back to America one month later, I got a day off. “This is your day,” my coach said. “Wednesday starts professionalism.”
Everyday for the past two weeks – Monday through Saturday – my training began at 7am at the track, where I went through a forty-five minute warm-up. The next hour was spent foam rolling, stretching, drinking my protein shake, and mentally relaxing. Then, practice began. After my lessons, I grabbed lunch, changed, and went to the afternoon drill group, which was followed by a fitness session four times a week. Throughout the day, I logged my sleep and food schedule, keeping track of everything.
This was my first lesson in professionalism. Everything is done with a purpose. Everything is done to develop a routine. Is it fun to wake up and train for seven hours everyday? Not always. Is it enjoyable to write down every time I sleep and eat? I can probably think of a few Netflix shows I’d rather be watching. But it’s the first step to developing professionalism – something I learned in Egypt that I desperately need.
My next lesson in professionalism was far harder, and I can’t say that I’ve figured it out yet. It’s fairly easy to do things that you know you can do. Although the routine that I’ve been doing for the past few weeks can be boring, and it’s not always what I want to spend all of my day doing, it is not something that really pulls me out of my comfort zone to an extreme level. What does, however, is battling.
In Egypt, I thought that I was competing hard. I ran down every ball, I didn’t outwardly tank, and I wanted to win really badly. But, again, it was a mirage. I would get so frustrated with myself or with what was going on in the match that I wouldn’t allow myself to be successful. Instead of actually buckling down and figuring out a way to win, I would merely tell myself I was buckling down and figuring out a way, but I would do it with emotions. I was – and still am – like a cannon, just needing one spark to trigger an explosion. My coach didn’t even need to see my matches to know that I was playing on my emotions. Every match was like riding Space Mountain at Disney World, a constant up and down. I would routinely lose clusters of points in a row. When I won games, it was often a few games in a row; games lost came in multiples as well.
Professionalism means figuring out a way to play every point like it’s a new match. In Egypt – and even still today – I realized that I was allowing my previous points to affect the next point. If I played a poor point, I would let the frustration boil over into the next point, and the next, and the next . . . and suddenly I had lost three games in a row. That is half a set that I played based solely on emotion. Not only did this kind of mentality give my opponents plenty of ammunition, but I was essentially building a brick wall and then telling myself to try and run through it.
How do you fix this? You just do. There’s no panacea – no recipe, no technique that can be taught, no magic word from Hogwarts that will cure it. Professionalism means being uncomfortable every single day for the rest of your career, which is why it’s strange to me when people tell me that they wish they could be me. Professional tennis, while an incredible life that many people never have the opportunity to try and do, is far from easy. True professionals have to battle themselves every single day, and win.
The toughest part of this kind of a life is that almost all of your success is going to be determined by yourself. The life of a professional athlete is amazing, but it’s a long journey to the top, and people often overlook the process as they view the result. How hard are you really willing to work? How uncomfortable are you really willing to be? How are you going to get over yourself and find a way every single day for the next decade of your career?
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.