The quest for affirmation can take myriad forms – it could come in the way of a pat on the back, a gentle nod or just batting an eyelid that tells the recipient that she is indeed on the right road. But then, the exponents of professional tennis are no ordinary souls. They pound their bodies into a state of acute suffering so that they could inch ever closer to perfection.
The journey to this fleeting experience of the absolute is an unsociable exercise in sadomasochistic expression, since most athletes know that perfection cannot be achieved. And even when they do, it is but a transient experience of nirvana that fades away as quickly as it is felt.
Of course there are rare geniuses that prove to be exceptions – Pete Sampras at the 1999 Wimbledon final “walked on water” in the words of the vanquished Andre Agassi. The born-again tennis player, coming off a stunning campaign in Paris was in the midst of a resurgent summer before coming face to face with perfection, albeit from across the net.
Down 0-40 in the vital seventh game of the first set, Sampras burnt the green grass on centre court. The scalding intensity of his tryst with some divinely inspired tennis fetched him 21 of the next 24 points. It was a monologue that set the tone for his 12th major conquest. The labouring Agassi was just a mute subject despite playing determined top notch tennis.
Not everybody though is capable of such a refined expression of sport; much less sustain it for the duration of an entire contest. It is for these men that the ATP World Tour offers a weekly window of opportunity from January through November. Emancipation comes in different forms, at tournaments of varying pedigree from around the world.
The soldiers of the game trudge from one city to another trying and hoping to meet with that gratifying dose of affirmation that comes with winning. Not just a match, but an entire week and the opportunity to drink from the glittering cup that goes with a triumphant ending. It is a journey that seeks gratification for all the thankless hours of repetitive drills under the watchful gaze of their team of coaches and parents.
A typical tennis professional spends about four to six hours spread over two to three sessions on an average work day, honing skills and perfecting technique. Much of that effort is a boring routine of drills, repeatedly striking a ball through an imaginary section of the court in order to develop muscle memory. A professional drills thousands of balls to perfect the skills needed to peel the paint off the farthest corner on the court, under the weight of severe tension in a clutch situation.
The purpose of this seemingly mundane effort is to ensure that body and mind attain a state of creative synthesis that enables a quicksilver response in a match situation without any time lost for thought. The exercise teaches the player to gain a subconscious measure of the court even as he controls the spin, speed and direction of the ball within a racing moment of time.
The tennis player pursues the tools of his trade with single minded dedication, only the glaring Sun bearing witness to his labour. However, the examination of his talents is a very public effort under the unforgiving gaze of a multitude of fans and media. But as much as a player is energized by the applause and shattered by jeering voices, his true affirmation lay in winning the battle.
For all the drills and routines practiced in the solitude of the practice courts, nothing validates the strenuous hours of preparation like the undiluted pleasure of holding aloft the silverware under the starry night. It is a form of release that offers relief to the strained sinews of a stretched athlete like little else can.
The act of winning a sequence of increasingly difficult matches against fellow professionals is a task fraught with imminent danger every step of the way. Ask Florian Mayer, who has been pursuing the trade for over a dozen years. The German reached the highest ranking of his career in June 2011. Even though he was 18th in the world, he was still waiting to lay hands on his first trophy as a professional.
He eventually took his maiden title in Bucharest later that year, but has never won another trophy since that night of glory. Julien Benneteau could offer an engaging insight into the quest for liberation. The thirteen year veteran of the tour could share eloquently the gnawing pain that accompanies losing a final.
The Frenchman has suffered the indignity on eight different occasions and is still seeking his first real moment of affirmation. Janko Tipsarevic, a former top ten player, is another classic example. The talented Serbian spent nearly ten years hunting for gold before finally mining some metal in 2011.
But nothing beats the toil of Vincent Spadea who plodded along for an incredible 223 tournaments before finally finding his maiden success at Scottsdale in 2004. And mind you, he did manage to breach the top twenty with his spirited, even though mostly vain, efforts.
While it is the top stars and serial winners that steal most of our attention during the marquee events, it is the lean period between them that offers us the fascinating opportunity of sharing in the educating experiences of the lesser men.