Second Serve: Starting from the bottom

Why am I doing this?

Why, on the wrong side of 30, in possession of a full-time broadcasting career, am I pushing myself to compete in sanctioned Tennis Canada tournaments?

And why have I chosen a sport that I’ve only been playing for five years?

All good and relevant questions. But I think the best way to describe the catalyst for this endeavour is a ‘post-competitive malaise.’

Before I started working in media, I was a pretty good left-handed pitcher. I played four years of varsity baseball for Queen’s University and one year of college baseball at Durham College (winning three pitcher of the year awards and a national championship).

Mike Arsenault when he played for the London Majors.

I then played semi-pro baseball for the London Majors of the Intercounty Baseball League (no awards were won; I stunk for the most part).

I retired from baseball in 2012 for a couple of reasons:

  1. I had reached my ceiling as a pitcher. I wasn’t good enough to play beyond semi-pro.
  2. I was burnt out. I had played baseball every year from the time I was 5 until 27.
  3. It was time to focus on getting, you know, a real job and moving out of my parents’ house (if you asked my Mom and Dad, this should have been the #1 reason).
  4. Story continues below

I was glad to be finished with the game and competitive sports. I needed a break. And I needed that energy that had been devoted to sports for a couple of decades to focus on my career.

However, now that I am five years removed from my baseball career, something is missing. I miss competing; the nerves; the sometimes razor-thin margin between winning and losing.

I miss all of that. And I want to get it back.

Maybe this is all just a quarter-life crisis? No, I’m probably too old for that. A mid-life crisis? If that’s the case, I’m going to stop contributing to my RRSP.

Maybe I’m not a good enough writer to express what I’m searching for.

Let’s have Teddy Roosevelt pinch-hit:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.

If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

THAT’S what I’m trying to say.

But why tennis? I never played as a kid because baseball and tennis season always overlapped and trying to play tennis while pitching would have been too much stress on my arm.

But when I moved back to the Toronto area in 2013, I re-connected with a former housemate from Queen’s (a very good tennis player in his own right) and I was looking for a way to stay in shape besides the monotony of the gym, so we started playing.

Age just a number for 12-year-old tennis sensation Reece Carter

I could only hit a backhand, I didn’t know how to serve (it probably looks like I still don’t) and I kept forgetting on what side of the court I was supposed to stand.

But what I lacked in talent, I could make up for with speed and hustle (Yes, I understand that’s a euphemism for saying that I sucked). I would chase every ball down I could get my racket on and I’d just try to make it difficult for opponents to get easy points.

I played a handful of times that first summer, joined a tennis club the next year, and this past spring and summer I played four times a week, each and every week. I take my racket on vacations now. I play as much as I can.

And I can now beat that friend. Actually, I’ve gotten to a point in my game where I can have a competitive match with players who are 5-10 years removed from playing varsity tennis at a Canadian university.

Anytime someone asks me how long I’ve been playing for, they are shocked when I answer that it’s only been five years. I don’t know why or how, but, for some reason, tennis and I just click. And that connection is stronger than what I had with other sports.

For example: I started playing baseball when I was 5. And I didn’t become a good pitcher until my second year of university. It took me 12 years to figure it out.

My hockey career started when I was 7. I got cut from the same AAA team eight years in a row (I just couldn’t take the hint). I finally made that AAA team in both years of midget.

Tennis just seems like a natural fit. And I want to see what I can do in a competitive setting.

Plus, tennis is purely merit based. I couldn’t try this in any other sport besides golf. I don’t have to worry about making a team or dealing with politics. It’s a meritocracy. If I win, I keep playing. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter how old I am, who I know, my tennis pedigree or what school I went to.

All that matters is what happens on the court.

Theoretically, a player could start in these local provincial association tournaments, accrue ranking points, climb the Tennis Canada leaderboard, graduate to ITF events (minor-league international tournaments), and then claw his way onto the ATP Tour (the big show with Milos and Denis).

Canadian tennis sensation Denis Shapovalov upsets Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at US Open

DISCLAIMER: In no way do I think the above scenario is remotely applicable to me. Yes, I’m curious at where my national ranking will be at the end of the year, but I don’t harbour fascinations of pro tennis glory.

Lloyd Christmas had a better chance of seducing Mary Swanson than me appearing at the Rogers Cup as anything other than a paying customer.

So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Tournament #1

My first tournament was at the Ace Circuit Canada Championship in Burlington. It was an $80 entry fee (pretty steep considering there was an excellent chance that I could lose my first match and be out of the tournament in less than an hour).

I know it will be a Sisyphean task at the beginning of this journey (possibly at the end as well) to advance in any of these tournaments. And I was reminded of that in Burlington.

The nitty-gritty of the tournament is covered in the video above, so I will talk about the overarching lessons I learned:

Lesson #1 – There is a HUGE difference in the talent level of top recreation club players and teenagers/U.S. college players looking to make tennis their vocation. The power of their serves, the ferocity of their groundstrokes and the consistency in which both are achieved is something that I’ve never seen before on the court.

That was a huge adjustment for me and one that will take more than just one tournament to become comfortable. I’m glad I played my first tournament now instead of in the spring, so now I have a few months to really work on my game before tennis season truly hits. And I know what to expect going forward.

Lesson #2 – Once in a rally, I could hold my own at times. Especially in my first match against the big lefty, I was able to withstand a number of barrages and chase balls down from side to side and force him to do the same. Again, the piece de resistance was the 40-shot rally I won to tie the second set at 2. That was definitely the highlight of my tournament.

My second match was against a player ranked in the top 60 in the country in the Under-18 bracket. His power was very impressive, but his accuracy even more so. He could put the ball wherever he wanted and I had no recourse. Rather than just get the ball back and let him fire away, I needed to press more, hit with more power and go for more corners, unforced errors be damned.

I will be more aggressive next time.

Lesson #3 – I had an absolute blast even though I got my ass kicked. The feeling I had playing in the tournament was exactly what I was missing. I can’t wait to play in my next one. Also, I was struck by the calibre of play. I was beaten 6-0, 6-0 by a top-60 teenager in Canada. And he was subsequently beaten 6-1, 6-1 by a top-25 adult in Canada. The jump in talent level is unreal.

I definitely need to overhaul my serve from a liability into, if not a weapon, then a consistent shot. It just looks different (i.e. much worse) than my opponents and that needs to change. And my return of serve needs to be drastically better. Both of my opponents had tremendous serves that flummoxed me at times.

My problem will be finding opponents outside of tournaments who possess a big serve and are willing/able to hit with me. The more I face a big serve, the easier it will be to return.

I earned 46.66 ranking points, which puts me 546th in the country. This is my starting point. Let’s see where I finish by the end of 2018.

See you on the tennis court!

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