So the professional tennis grand slam circuit has finished for another year, with Novak Djokovic winning the US Open to cap "one of the best ever" years in tennis history. In celebration of Djokovic's year, his classic tilt with Roger Federer in the US Open semi-finals, and the sport in general, I thought I'd post a favorite passage of mine from the great Robert Harrison's radio show podcast Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature). Harrison is actually a tennis player himself, and his guest in this case is the legendary Stanford tennis coach Dick Gould (Episode 40, click here). In the course of the conversation the two begin to talk about the serve and volley style of tennis, one that Gould used to coach but one that has (sadly) largely gone out of the sport (for reasons they explore). I also grew up playing tennis, and still play the sport when possible, and I loved Harrison's description of what it's like to rush into the net during a point. It struck me that there might be a great metaphor there for engaging the personal journey of evolution and growth. Here's Harrison:
“I also- used to be anyway- an aggressive serve and volleyer, probably because I didn’t have the ground strokes necessary to win on a consistent basis points from the baseline against people who were far more steady and consistent then I was. But also I think by temperament there’s something about the serve and volley game that makes the game of tennis much more exciting as a participant, because as you mentioned, when you make a decision to commit to go into the net you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’re there in no mans land, and I’m always fascinated by the literal split-step as well as what the split-step means metaphorically for other situations in life, where you’re rushing the net and you take that split-step before your opponent hits the ball so that you’re ready to go in any direction, you can go right, left, high or low, it’s that moment of sheer potentiality that hasn’t yet become a reality for a split second, and there’s something thrilling about it as a participant, but also as a spectator, because a person has put himself completely on the line and you can get passed and it can be very hard on your ego, and you can look ridiculous if it fails, but if you win more points at the net than you lose than I guess you’re doing alright. There’s something heroic about that style of play".
I agree and I also love coming to the net while playing tennis. In fact, you're supposed to either come in behind a big serve, or when you've hit a solid ground stroke that has your opponent on the defensive, but nonsense I constantly run in no matter what my shot is like, because it's just too damn much fun! There's that moment of the split-step, where you're running forward and then you leap onto your two feet, and now are ready to move in any direction, that's very exhilarating as Harrison describes. And what if we rushed the net in moments of transition in our lives- a new job, lover, opportunity, a new spiritual practice, diet, whatever- embracing the thrill of the "moment of sheer potentiality" instead of the inevitable doubt, anxiety and fear? Maybe that little explosive moment in tennis holds an important and potentially exciting lesson for the dusty clay courts of life.
Well, as strange as it sounds, I'm not the only one writing about tennis and evolution these days. Bruce Sanguin has just posted a piece at If Darwin Prayed called Taking A Lesson From Professional Tennis Players that's worth checking out. May we revel in the moment of potentiality in the next transition of our own evolutionary journey, and may we sometimes hit a lunging volley in mid stride.
It occurred to me yesterday that some folks reading this might not have a good visual sense of the serve and volley game, or the split-step moment when rushing the net. So I looked around the internet last night and found this beauty video of two of the greatest serve and volleyer's ever, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, in contest with one another. I started watching the video and was satisfied that it was a good example, and then I got totally mesmerized by the footage and had to watch all the way through. It's some pretty beautiful stuff, you really don't see this kind of thing in tennis anymore. Harrison's words about how often you can get totally burnt while playing this way really stood out for me; the ball blows by a lunging McEnroe on many an occassion. But Mac was a spirited player and won many a title himself. He was also a real magician on the court, few people in the history of modern tennis have had the creativity and finesse he had out there, as you can see in the viedo. Anyway, enjoy the clip!