I felt lonely not competing when I quit tennis. I had a lot of time on my hands that I had to adjust to. I still wanted to keep playing sports. Besides tennis, I grew up playing basketball and soccer, so I decided to join a basketball team and start training. I felt like I needed to catch a break and rest from tennis induced anxiety and basketball was a good sport where I could be a part of a team and share both good and bad moments. I needed a team to be my support group and my home base, a place where it would be okay to potentially feel anxious again. I was tired managing anxiety on my own while competing.
After a few months of adjusting to the team I realized that we are all simply a bunch of individuals playing together. I was hoping that we would communicate more off the court and learn about and appreciate each other more. I felt that every player wanted to excel individually and the only thing we had in common was the uniform. I did not think we were a team at all. So, for the second time in my life, I quit the sport that I love. I felt disappointed for still not having found my support group.
By this time, I was 17 years old and moved to the United States from Serbia due to my mother’s job with the United Nations. We moved to New Jersey, where I attended a public high school to close out my sophomore year. I met a group of Chinese students who were part of a a competitive table tennis team. I went to a few practices just to check it out and feel the atmosphere, to see if it felt ‘warm and fuzzy’. After a month of practicing with them, they invited me to join the team as a starter. Most importantly, I realized that for the first time since my encounter with debilitating anxiety, I was having FUN. By the time I got really good, we had to move back to Europe, to the Netherlands this time due to my mother’s work.
I attended an American high school and immediately joined a table tennis training facility in the city. This place was ranked nationally and had a competition team as well. After a few months of practicing, I became a starter and we were developing into a great team. I was going to start travelling regularly and it seemed like I found my home base in table tennis. Everything was moving along great until one day at school, while passing by the gym, I saw the sign for the tennis team tryouts. I instantly got a feeling of excitement and love for the game of tennis all through my body. All the thoughts of joy, fun and personal growth flooded by mind. I remembered what it was like being on the tennis court, on clay, having dirty shoes and socks, and even feeling miserable competing. I realized I was missing A LOT! It came to me that this was a sign that I was supposed to go back to tennis, my first great love. I felt ‘warm and fuzzy’ on the inside just thinking about it. I KNEW this is the sport where I truly belong and where, ironically, I could find my ‘team’.
A few weeks before tryouts, I quit table tennis and started training for the tennis team tryouts. When the day came, I could not even believe I was back on the tennis court. It seemed surreal. The tryouts lasted a full week. I did really well, won a lot of matches, felt anxious but not as nearly as much as back in Serbia competing. I found out I had made a starting team which was the turning point in my tennis career moving forward.
The biggest advantage of this American system was that we were trained to be a part of a team, with every player having a clear role and a spot they played at. I never experienced that before in my life. Tennis, to me, was always about me and how well I deal with adversity ON MY OWN. This was still true but the format of representing a team instead of myself, was a miraculous experience for me. I felt confident finally being able to use the skills I had.
After a few a months of playing at various tournaments, I competed in Germany at a regional ‘singles’ tournament. I felt anxious again but something was different. I was feeling anxiety in a way that was driving my effort forward, it did not hinder me any longer. I was winning round after round and the unimaginable happened – I WON the whole thing. This was the most important moment in my life as a tennis player up to that point. I simply could not believe it! I did not even know how to react, smile or cry, or both. I was not even aware of what just happened. This experience made me realize how successful I could actually become.
My tennis career moved forward with lightning speed having earned ITF ranking points. To this day, I still cannot explain how my once debilitating anxiety changed into a positive driving force. I believe it was a combination of things but most importantly, I credit this to tennis as a team sport. I believe that through this team specific environment, I was able to succeed instead to fail.
Most people think of tennis as an individual sport but there is very much an important team component that we need to keep in mind. Junior team tennis, high school tennis, college, Davis and Fed Cup are some of the well-known examples of tennis as a team sport in terms of the ‘singles’ format. Another obvious aspect of tennis as a team sport is shown through the ‘doubles’ format. At the highest level, let us reflect back for a second on any professional player who gave a tournament winning speech. What is the very first thing they say? “I would like to congratulate so and so and his/her TEAM, on a terrific performance.” What is the second thing they say? “I would like to thank my TEAM for being there for me and my family for sticking by my side throughout the challenging times.” All the while, most people are thinking: “What team are they talking about? It’s an individual sport.” What about the last thing they say? “I would like to thank the sponsors, ball boys and girls and other volunteers who made this event possible…and to my fans: Thank you guys, you are the best crowd in the world, I couldn’t have done it without you.”…
‘TEAM’ (Together Everyone Achieves More), is my favorite breakdown of the word. Each player brings something specific to the practice table, whether it is their energy, effort, positive attitude, teammate support or simply a high level of tennis…and therefore has a role on the team. Being a part of a team can be extremely valuable and set a solid foundation for further development, both in sports and in life.