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The Tennis Edition
On muscle memory, athleticism, and the joy of sport
I just caught up with a friend in Tokyo who re-discovered tennis. It reminded me of this piece. Re-running from the archives and back tomorrow.
Colin here. Over the past few years, I’ve rediscovered tennis. Throughout childhood and into high school it was a sport I played regularly and took seriously. While I became competitive (regular travel and NCTA tournaments around California), let’s just say I lacked the mental discipline to take things to another level and play in college, or higher.
Plus, in California, the competition was astoundingly good. I can remember being aghast when a regional star crushed the best player in my club. And that was still junior tennis. It was hard for me to fathom the distance between that kid and the people I would watch in Wimbledon.
The distance between the regional ace and the lowest-ranked Wimbledon player is huge, yes. But what makes great tennis players great is not only the underlying coordination and athleticism but also the volume of repetition that grinds strokes into muscle memory. In a way, great players have pattern recognition: being able to read a serve and return it as an instinctual, rather than conscious movement. I remember being blown away at Andre Agassi’s biography, Open, when the star recounted logging 10,000 hours on a court by the time he hit age 16. And at that age, he actually detested playing. His father was insistent on him hitting a “million balls a year, from a young age.”
But the practice and repetition worked, he recounted:
Agassi says at one point there were so many balls on the court from the endless practice that the balls being fired were hitting other balls that were on the floor. He still hit them though, even when they shot off in a different direction. That’s when he knew he was good. Other children wouldn’t even see those balls but he was returning them.
Why is this interesting?
For me, any dream of greatness is gone, but my re-introduction to the sport has been fascinating. I found I still have a few things locked into my muscle memory. I can serve aggressively when I manage to dial in my toss. I still have a strong forehand. But twenty years on, it’s like playing with the same brain, but in a different body. I’m slower, to be sure, but also stronger. The hand-eye coordination isn’t as sharp, but now I think I have a cooler head when it comes to not really caring if I miss-hit the ball, or lose a point. The fact that so many bright yellow tennis balls were hit over and over in the hot summer sun in my youth makes most movements feel familiar and dialed in once I warm up. There are also hitches I need to address: tensing up too much on the backhand, and a few bad habits when it comes to netplay.
I’m comforted that even the world’s best athletes start to decline in their early twenties. This doesn’t match their physical peak in sport and that’s because, for a while, the mind and accumulated experience make up for diminished physicality. Here’s an explanation from ESPN writer Sam Miller on what happens as baseball players age:
A 23-year-old begins to decline at the same time that he learns how to play baseball better. The race between age and expertise is what determines whether a baseball player can have the best season of his career years after his body begins to fail.
The 26-year-old runner is a few steps off third base as the pitch is delivered, and the batter pops it 230 feet to right field -- too shallow, it seems, to get him home. To this point in the season, only one sacrifice fly has been shallower, and that one came with the right fielder running and off balance. This one is a lazy can of corn with an outfielder squared up under it. But the catch is made with a slight reach back, and Mike Trout bolts home, diving headfirst to get under a high throw.
He has lost a step, technically, but he virtually never makes an out on the bases anymore. (One this year. Twelve as a rookie, not counting five times caught stealing.) He knows what's too shallow and what's deep enough and when the right fielder has to reach juuust back to make the catch. He's the best player in baseball, and it feels like he will be forever.
It’s been years since all of those hours logged at the net under the California sun, using the club as a summer hangout and after school activity. But while the competition and aspiration has melted away, I am left to enjoy the physicality of the sport, the cardio that doesn’t feel like doing cardio, and also the social element. Go try playing if you’ve lapsed. You’ll dig it. (CJN)
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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