This article is a personal account penned entirely by Aastha Malhotra.
There are some things I have always been hesitant to write about. I believe it is because of the fear of those things becoming real, more real than I would like them to be, and immortalizing them, perhaps. I remember reading a poem in Grade 10 about how written word is all that is eternal. Everything else fades away. It was in the context of the greatness of rulers, of how all the statues they build for themselves will rust, all their palaces will be destroyed but what is written about them will pass the test of time. I, however, like to believe that it is universally applicable.
As I sit down to write this rather shabbily written post, I dont know what to say. Or how to say whatever little I do have to say. This is not something that happens to me very often because most of the time, I can articulate my feelings extremely well, but today, I find myself confused and at a loss of words.
I started playing tennis at the tender age of 6, before I could even spell photosynthesis. It started out as a fad- my cousins and best friend had joined tennis lessons so my parents thought that these lessons were Gods gift to mankind, and they enrolled me immediately. I dont know about Gods gift to mankind, but these lessons were truly His gift to the little girl of 6. Before I go any further, lets be clear about a few things. I have never been extraordinarily talented- tennis, public speaking, academically. However, I have always had the need to outdo myself and my past performances. Im not exceptionally brilliant, but I am exceptionally brilliantly hardworking. So, slowly and slowly, as my cousins and best friend got bored and moved on to other things that tickled their fancy, I started enjoying, and loving tennis. I decided to commit to this wonderful sport and my commitment to tennis was the first and longest commitment to anything I have ever made. It almost feels like tennis was my first boyfriend.
I started playing competitive tennis at 9, before I knew what BODMAS was. Because I was so fiercely passionate, I never let the losses put me down. Sure, Im an extremely sore loser so I would always be upset and cut off from all things tennis immediately after losing but whenever I got back to court, I would try and outdo myself. There are two things one of my coaches said that stuck with me a) a wounded tiger always comes back fiercer b) quoting Steffi Graff, he said that if I worked hard while practicing, I wouldnt have to work half as hard during a match. While these felt like the biggest lies in the world then, at this point in time, these are the only two things that seem to make sense to me.
At tennis lessons, I was always used to being the youngest around, and often the only girl. I liked being the youngest a lot, because it made me feel like I was doing much more than children my age, and that was a different kind of high. Being the only girl, I didnt enjoy as much. While we were at the awkward stage where boys and girls hated each other, it became a tad bit difficult to find a partner. Mostly, I ended up playing against my coaches or practicing with them. In retrospect, it made me a lot better because all the boys who refused to rally with me or warm up with me were far worse than my coaches. This taught me a very deep lesson at an early age, which was that whatever happens, happens for a reason, even if we fail to see it at that point.
My competitive tennis career (I feel like a pro saying that) was extremely fruitful. I represented my state (Union Territory?) at the national level in 2008, which is when I was 9 and everyone around was at least 4 years elder to me. I felt special and like I was Gods gift to tennis-kind (Ha!). After all, I was the only 9 year old who was deemed worthy enough to participate in this tournament with the weight of collective responsibility on my delicate shoulders. This is not to say that I was a prodigy and won all matches I ever played. In fact, I have only ever won 1 national ranking tournament, much later in my tennis career. I was a good player, I asked a lot of questions, I was a keen learner, I thought about tennis a lot and I made space for it in my life when a lot of my peers were only beginning to understand who they were. I wasnt the ideal student, though. I found excuses to miss physical fitness classes, didnt run as much, stuck to a technique most of my coaches hated but I?was a keen learner. I was always a keen learner.
Unfortunately for me and fortunately for my competitors (Double ha!), I gave up tennis in Grade 10. 2014. This came as a rather rude shock to both my parents and coaches. I made the decision in August, few weeks prior to which, I had enrolled in a high intensity program that demanded 5 hours of training and 1.5 hours of physical fitness everyday. I had completed the program with a lot of enthusiasm but deep down, I knew that I was lying to myself. I knew that I had lived this experience to the fullest and no tennis court could ever give me the comfort I now sought. I had moved on to other things, mainly public speaking, which gave me another kind of confidence, but thats a separate story I will save for another day.
Quitting tennis was arguably the hardest decision I have ever taken. It was hard to explain to others because no one expected this from me. Nobody thought I would give up something I had grown to love and cherish so deeply. Actually, it was the hardest to explain to myself. I beat myself up over the decision and felt guilty every single day until today. I had given up on something that had never given up on me. Despite all the injuries, the blood, sweat and tears, I never thought that my sport has failed me- it only tested how strong I was. It asked for more and more each time I stepped into a court. I felt as if I had cheated on my partner, as if I had let down my closest friend and murdered the person who chose to love me unconditionally.
However, sometimes, we make decisions that are harder to accept than to make. Sometimes, they are impulsive, sometimes they are well thought out. I dont know what kind of a decision mine was. I always thought about how I was deteriorating but the thought of quitting never occurred to me, until it finally did and I quit. No explanations to my parents or coaches or friends or teachers. I just quit. I chose not to go back to my tennis academy for the thought of being confronted by my failure to commit scared the living hell out of me.
My parents chose not to get involved because they knew how much it impacted me and an unsaid rule in my family is to give the person as much time as they require. I was allowed to grieve, in isolation and company, in happiness and sadness and everything in between. There were days where it felt like the best decision I had made and on other days I could not face myself because I felt like a monster. After that, too much happened, I took my Grade 10 board examinations, got a scholarship to a summer program, started Grade 11 and got involved in a lot of new activities. It left me no time to think about my decisions, or the game I love so dearly, until today.
I will admit that I cried while writing this post that is almost as long as the longest essay I have ever written. How could I not, though, I have played tennis for more than half my life. I have only ever been committed to tennis for this long, and this intensely. It has given me the greatest joys I could have ever asked for, the most important lessons and a lot of genuine friends- two of whom I would take a bullet for. Today, after writing this post, I have finally found the closure I have been looking for the past year and a half. I never thought I would ever be able to write about my journey of starting and quitting tennis but I am glad I did.
Tennis has been my companion when I didnt have any friends and was too tired to read my favourite book, it has been like a lover on a lonely night, like a parent on a sick day, but mostly a friend I could always count on, even if the friend couldnt count on me. My advice to anybody who has made it till the end of this post is to find what you love and let it kill you and never let it go.
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