Looking back at year 1 of what will be a lifelong journey

In early 2023, months before I turned 40, I started playing tennis. It instantly became my favorite sport and filled an important hole in my life. In 10 months I went from not knowing how to hold a racket to hitting 15 shot rallies with guys a decade younger than me.

Some friends have been surprised by the late start and the quick improvement, and someone recently asked me how I did it. My immediate reaction was: "I just played a lot", but with a little more thought I realized I did quite a bit more than that. Here's what:

The foundation was playing a lot. I love to hit, and I hit as much as I could. Over the spring, summer, and fall, I hit at least once a week, and often twice. A co-worker and I started a Wednesday morning tennis habit that we kept for months, and I had another friend to play with over the weekends. I travelled with my racket, and ended up hitting in half a dozen cities in 2023. And now in the winter when bubble time is hard to come by, I play at 11pm if I have to.

I found hitting partners that were better than me. Once I knew I liked to play, I asked everyone I knew if they also played, and tried to hit with everyone that I thought was better than me. I ended up with 4 regular hitting partners over the year, each with a different style, and each taught me something new:

  • Vinny gave me my first racket and got me started. He’s received a lot of coaching in his life, and loves to observe and teach, so each session with him was basically a coaching session. He got my grip and swing in check, and taught me the basics of how to generate top spin.
  • Rob, Shekhar, and Pablo were each observant, and each pointed out specific things I should improve. Pablo pushed my backhand (too flat, not enough top spin), Shekhar pushed my movement (split step, micro steps), and Rob showed me how to use my legs and body to generate power.
  • Sometimes we’ll do drills while we play. We usually do ¾ rallying/hitting, and ¼ games. I'd like to shift that to ½ rallying, ¼ games, and ¼ drills.

I'm projecting a little, but I believe that people like giving advice to people that will take it, i.e. because I showed that I was listening to and working on their tips, they were willing to keep giving me tips.

I usually had one specific thing I was working on. Even though there were always dozens of things to improve, I focused on one main thing each session, e.g 'keep the racket up', 'turn when they hit', 'push with the back foot', etc. This was usually the thing my partner or I had noticed the previous session. In the early days I tried to keep 3-4 lessons in my mind at a time, and I found it muddled my thinking and confused my actions. Later, I found simplicity and focus in just thinking about one thing per session, ideally expressed in a couple of words that I could repeat to myself between shots.

Between session, I watched a lot of videos. After most sessions, I'd have a weak spot on my mind, and would find YouTube videos about it. For any one idea, I'd watch multiple videos to find the teacher and lesson that resonated. My Instagram explore turned into a wall of tennis too, where I picked up tips and lessons I hadn't been seeking out, but would reinforce or add on to my learning.

I practiced my moves off-court. I swung my racket about a thousand times in my living room, to build up a feel for full body movement, and forehand and backhand swings that would generate top-spin. Shadow-boxing, but for tennis. In the early months, this led to meaningful improvements and I improved some basic aspects of my game between sessions!

I ignored the serve for the first 6 months. I see a lot of beginner players playing sets with slow and weak serves to start a point. There's probably a school of thought that promotes this, but I found it far better for my game to completely ignore the serve until I could hit and return basic shots reasonably well. I want as many reps of the basics, so even when I play games with friends, we tend to start with underhand feeds, and then enter into competitive rallys, so a weak serve doesn't interfere with hitting and movement. I didn't serve for the first time until month 6, and only now is it a regular (though small, at the end) part of a session.

I watched a lot of tennis. I watched a little bit of most ATP 1000 tournaments, and a few 500s too, observing how players move their feet, and how they construct shots, though I'm very elementary on this. I also sometimes move with the ball on screen, holding a racket, turning my body when the far player hits, and swinging my racket in time with the near player. This built up a feel for the pace and timing of a hard hitting match, and I realized that I could swing a little faster. Tennis is an intense physical sport, but equally an intense mental exercise. Watching players struggle with, work on, and strengthen their mental game over a season imbued me with some mental strength too.

I got gear I loved. This may sound silly but I think it matters. Get shoes and a racket you love and are excited to put on and use. My Court FF Novak's are the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn. My rackets started off light (Pro Staff 97L, 290g), then went up in weight (Yonex Ezone 98, 305g), and up again (Pro Staff 97 v13, 315g) as I got stronger. The first two rackets had basic strings, but the third had rougher strings for more spin. I was lucky to have friends either give me rackets (both Pro Staffs), or have rackets that I could try out. Paragon Sports in NYC also lets you borrow a racket to try out for very cheap.

I went to a tennis camp! Total Tennis in Saugerties, NY is a year-round tennis camp with many weekend and weekday options. Over a three day camp in the summer, I played 7 hours of tennis on day 1, and 3 hours on day 2, with solid instruction, good partners, tasty food, and much needed beers in between. My coach focused on my readiness, stance, and timing of movement. I got to play with brand new people, work on new shots, and learn some drills that I could bring back to the city.

I got stronger off-court. I don't just play tennis, I also climb, and I've started to lift. I want stronger legs, and a strong upper body, and I want to exercise muscles outside just the ones I use on-court. I stretch every morning (a leg-focused but full-body series of stretches that take under 10 minutes), and do other things like surfing and slacklining for balance and core strength.

Learning is not a straight line, and I'm not a highly structured learner. I like multi-modal and multi-teacher learning, spread out over time, with repetition and consistency to support it, and a purpose and fun to motivate it.

I also love having a web of interconnected activities and goals, where each supports another. It makes it easier for me to pick up something new if I know it'll help in some way with the things I'm already doing. Tennis is exercise, but it's also how I hang out with good friends, which I had wanted to do. I'd already wanted to lift, but only started doing it once I wanted stronger legs for tennis. It's more fun to watch tennis now that I play, and I get lessons for my play from watching. Etc.

In 2024 I plan to:

  • find a coach (I tried over the summer but the few people I reached out to were fully booked, so I will try to find someone in the spring instead of in the summer)
  • go to clinics at McCarran starting next week (Rob is always doing these)
  • go to TotalTennis at least once, but maybe twice
  • use the 100 old balls I’ve collected to practice my serves on my own
  • start playing sets with serving (all the games I’ve played this year have been tie-break points, with feed serves, not overhead)
  • start running up to the net while rallying, to build up comfort with volleys
  • dedicate a portion of a session (10-15 mins?) to drills
  • do some sprints and short runs before or after a session
  • keep playing as much as I can!

I could have discovered tennis anytime in the last 20 years, but no matter - it's happened now and will be with me the rest of my life, like it was in my grandfather's until he was over 70. I love having a sport in my life, meeting people and building friendships through it, while strengthening my body and mind, and having a reason to be outside on every nice day.

So, wanna hit?