“Are you depressed for the first two days when you get home and for the first two days on the road?”
I thought I was the only tennis player who struggled with this part of my touring life. I speak with Taylor Ng, one of my best friends in professional tennis, a graduate of Dartmouth University who worked on Wall Street for two years before embarking on a professional career. Today, it ranks 650th in the world.
We catch up and each asks the other how it is. More importantly, we ask, “Where are you?” We both stand and laugh. For a moment, none of us can remember the time or place we were. This is normal. After all, we change countries from week to week. I often wake up wondering where I am.
Today, after a month on the road, I am finally returning home. Going home brings a lot of emotions, warns players like me about the instability that professional tennis can bring. It is a reminder that even your closest friends and family cannot fully comprehend your life and experience. This means realizing that the world you left to chase the rating points continues without you, and that you missed important events and moments while you were away.
Every time I come home, my sisters and brothers grow up impossible. When I travel, I sometimes avoid FaceTiming with my family on Thursdays – because I know they all go to dinner. Anyway, they call me. Although I was sad that I could not be at my favorite restaurant, I smiled at them. I get myself ready, I focus on where I am and what I do. Dreaming can make me bored at home, so it’s better not to.
When I talk to the people closest to me – or to anyone, really – I always remind myself not to be ungrateful. As a professional athlete, I don’t do the traditional 9 to 5 job. In many ways, I am lucky. But at the same time, trying to do that in my sport is nothing but glamor. Tennis professionals need to understand how lonely, how disconnected, and how ruined our lives are for players over the first 250 or so. And this need is often not met.
So coming home can be stressful. Even if you’re only home for a week, it can take a few days to adjust to see if I fit in with my family, friends, and girlfriend’s schedules and routines. When I start to feel comfortable, it’s time to leave again. Depression and anxiety enter. I will come up with a hundred reasons to be late, I know in my heart that if I want to succeed in tennis, I can do nothing but stick to my career.
Still, I consider myself lucky. I love tennis. I can’t imagine what it’s like for parents, coaches or players who do it for national federations.
The best way I can share and explain the mental health problems of professional tennis is through a typical trip. Finding a balance between improving, earning, and competing enough to rise in the rankings while maintaining your physical health through exercise blocks at home can be difficult – especially at the beginning of your career. There is no real offseason in our sport. Missed tournament opportunity can change your career. That’s why I usually travel once every four or six weeks. Sometimes I went for exactly eight weeks – alone.
While training at home, I try to figure out where in the world it would be the best place to play. If I allowed the International Tennis Federation system to choose my place, I could literally finish anywhere from Africa to South America. But I do not have such a luxury. Money is tight and it is expensive to book a flight less than a week before the trip.
But sometimes I will take the opportunity. I recently decided to play in a number of tournaments in Brazil. I booked a one-way flight for about $ 1,000 and began researching how to get from city to city by bus or plane each week. I really hope I can tag it with other players. Although I am lucky to have received financial support from sponsors and my family, I coach and write to support myself as much as I can. It makes my days longer and more tiring, but I need some pressure to overcome my shoulders.
I have a 40-hour trip ahead. Sixteen of them will be on the plane. Although my flight anxiety has improved, it is not a condition that facilitates my career.
I have a lot to worry about when I come to a new country. I often drive for two or three hours with a driver who does not speak English. I speak Spanish, but that doesn’t always help. I have little or no cell phone service, so I ask my girlfriend to follow me if she can to make sure I go to my last destination. If I get kidnapped, I start thinking about all the ways to escape. I recall that I took a three-hour taxi ride along the Algerian border in Tunisia – an area with a travel warning for terrorism – and everything went well. Surprisingly, it gives relief to the pit in the stomach.
Finally, you hope that, as they say, you will get in the car with someone connected to the tournament. There is no real way to know. Depletes the mind.
I am reaching Piracicaba, Brazil. The walk was relatively pleasant. I’m excited to come to the hotel after hours of not eating. Then I realize that no one here speaks English, lunch is closed and I do not know where and when I will get my next meal. I’m sure I’ll finally eat. You just have time to find a solution before training. The following week I realized that the Portuguese language was terrible; It’s a mystery every time you order a meal.
Things change when I finally meet a friend.
There is one strange thing in the life of the tour that you immediately notice: Everyone quickly becomes friends. Really fast. Relationships turn into best friends from strangers within a week. I’m not exaggerating.
At first I thought it was strange. Then I realized that it was not so. These friendships are real. They arise from mutual despair in order to be understood and not to be left alone. You live in small rooms with strangers and you experience things that no one else in the world has. Of course you connect. This is the ability to survive.
Sometimes these friendships continue. Others come and go as soon as you close. I will never forget making friends so quickly with a girl who is 250th on the tour. At that time, I was honored to talk to someone who did not have a rating. Today, he is close to the first 100, and if we had crossed paths, he probably wouldn’t have looked at me that way. I’m not offended. This is how the tour goes.
I am lucky in Brazil. My good friend Julia is here to help me. Our relationship is not a surviving relationship because no one else is. He is a true friend. And he knows I’m struggling with a language barrier. I am also friends with Magdalena from Macedonia. He is kind enough to invite me to dinner, and we are immediately hooked on good Brazilian food. This type of connection is common, as most resorts in entry-level tournaments will give you food poisoning.
It’s tennis time
The tournament week begins and preparations for the game are nearing completion. At dinner with Magdalena and her coach, I tell her how jealous I am to travel with a coach. This can be a great advantage – not only because you watch your game and know what you are doing right and wrong, but also because there is someone who will support you personally.
This is one of my biggest struggles. After my matches, I call my coach in Boston, but sometimes I can’t say what’s wrong. It’s one thing to play a match, it’s another to see it.
Then there are times when I don’t even want to call. I don’t want to tell my coach that I lost because I struggled with confidence. This feeling often overwhelms tennis players. No one wants to admit it out loud, usually for two reasons. Doubts and worries can damage performance, so many of us subscribe to the Fake It To Make It method: If you can claim that your nerves aren’t there, then really? On the other hand, talk about your worries – it can be healthy! – can also signal to your coaches, sponsors or competitors that you are struggling. If they don’t trust you or see a “weakness”, it can be a disadvantage, both on and off the field. This, as a rule, leads to a period of extreme thinking. You convince yourself that you deserve it, and then you get angry when you show signs of cracking. You turn back and forth emotionally. It can consume you.
Sitting with Magdalena for lunch is refreshing. He enters immediately. I tell him I’ve written a book about anxiety and tennis, and he immediately says, “Now let me tell you, why don’t we talk more about it?”
He starts talking about a feeling I know very well. This is the worst concern on the field. The type that affects your body’s ability to move. Suddenly you believe you don’t know how to play tennis. This is strange for us, considering that we have played tennis all our lives.
“My arm goes numb, then it squeezes,” he says. When I say that, I think of my best friend in college. My friend had a “serving yips”, which we call when he can’t let go of the ball properly and causes it to go everywhere.
I return to Magdalena’s experience. I wonder if he really feels it at the level I sometimes feel? It is difficult to say. Inside, it’s a terrible feeling. But from the outside, you often can’t see the player going through it.
The night before
I return to my room after dinner. Thank you, because for the first time in a long time I am excited for my match. I’m usually scared. My insecurity is caused by two back tears, a broken wrist, a broken leg and abdominal tension. It’s also exciting because I care so much about whether people think I can do it. I know in my heart that I can. I am angry with myself for giving even a second of my mental energy to skeptics. We do not need. But this time I’m not afraid to lose – or worse, I tell all my friends and family that I lost. I’m just excited to play.
I lie in bed to sleep well. An hour later, my body was covered with rashes and burns. Bed bugs. My body is burning, but I am calm. I will not allow this to upset me. I change rooms, wash clothes and sit in my new bed thinking about this moment. The mental difficulties caused by trying to become a professional tennis player are not taken seriously. Normally, this moment would make me cry. I would probably ask God why something else happened that prevented me from succeeding.
But this time I shake it. I understand that this is why my coach gave me the advice he gave me when I started playing on tour: “I don’t leave here from the main blows and services. Anyone on the tour can play. It is about being spiritually strong. This is due to good luck. And in the end, it depends on who can do it. “
I remember that and accept the call and go to bed. Tomorrow is game day.