My parents’ separation at the age of 17 and my dad telling my mom goodbye before departing to his home country was a surprise. For the first time in my life, he wasn’t running the show anymore, and now was the time for me to try to turn pro in the sport I loved.
The professional tennis tour can be a very lonely place for an athlete dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Usually people don’t speak to each other much. Unless they’re from the same country, and then it’s quite common to see vans packed with six players sleeping practically on top of each other. I had just graduated from high school and at the tender age of 19 had no real ‘skills’ I could use to get a quality job, just a few tennis racquets that I bought at different garage sales, an open mind and a willingness to do whatever it takes to create what I wanted.
I wasn’t the most social guy in the world so at this point hitting partners for me to train with were difficult to get. So I would do the next best thing to getting a solid practice with someone my level―I used tennis backboards, and I would perfect my volleys at train stations and while I waited for the train to arrive (can you believe someone tipped me once for this?). I would use the side wall of a grocery store while I waited for a bus to arrive, and I would even use the backboard of a basketball net late at night with the lights on and do my regular 3,000 repetitions of stroke practice.
Unfortunately, all of the hard work in the world doesn’t mean much if you aren’t mentally strong enough to handle the pressure of a tennis match. Boy did I crumble each and every time things got difficult. Even with all of the training in my early years, it only prepared me physically. Tennis is a very mental game.
During those early years of playing professional tennis, I was extremely lonely and became home-sick quickly, but there was always a voice in the back of my head that told me to keep going. I would later in life figure out that those extreme struggles, those close battles that I lost and those grueling days of not having the money to sleep in a normal bed would all contribute to the person I would soon become. Problems really are a sign of life, and we all deal with them on a daily basis, but back then during the first few years of high level tennis, I didn’t handle my problems very well and they definitely affected me on the tennis court.
In tennis, proper repetition is the key to mastering a skill, and the same goes for living a life filled with over worry, constant anxiety and panic attacks.
Those early years filled my mind with all the things that weren’t right in my life. Like why my parents didn’t work harder so I could afford what all the other tennis players had―better tennis racquets, some proper meals during tournaments or maybe a coach. It was a perfect setting to manifest my generalized anxiety disorder that came later in life. “What’s wrong” would constantly follow me on and off the court, and “what’s right” was rarely if ever noticed.
Through the repetition of negative thoughts, I drove myself crazy on the tennis court. For example, if I was winning a tennis match by the score of 6-0, was up 5-0 in the second set and was one game away from clinching the win, but then if I would turn around and lose that game, I immediately let myself have it verbally and many times physically throwing my racquet to places racquets shouldn’t go (there are still many of my racquets stuck in trees around the world, I can assure you that). It was no surprise that I brought the same negative routines I built up on the court, to my off the court life and the over worrying cycle that led to being overly anxious and eventually ‘clinically’ depressed slowly but surely settled in.
Jimmy Connors was one of the best to ever play the game and a true inspiration to me growing up. He said “I didn’t lose the tennis match, I just simply ran out of time.”
Jimmy believed that tennis was about solving problems and that if he had more time he would have been able to solve the problem he was facing on the tennis court and eventually come out the victor, unlike my father who was too stubborn to accept he was the problem in the family and took no steps to try and solve them, I felt free and was driven to succeed from that moment on.
The professional tennis tour taught me that you need to be equally strong in every aspect, physical, mental, technical, and tactical – to be able to compete with the rest of the pack. Just like in people’s everyday lives, taking time to strengthen yourself physically (exercise, sports, working out), mentally (looking at the facts of the past, mental exercises, meditation), technically (doing the activities correctly), and tactically (balancing everything properly throughout your day), can keep up the momentum required to keep an anxiety disorder far far away.
The problem is that in our world, there is so much information at every corner that it’s hard to decide which direction to look. When I did things at random, I would always become a lost soul. I would read that I needed to change my diet in this way or that way so I would fill up my blender with a bunch of vegetables and gulp it all down, then check in (checking to see if anything was physically wrong with me at that moment) and see if I was feeling better or not. If I didn’t have immediate results I would ditch the blender and try something else, giving up on that just as quickly. This kind of randomness was like running from court to court, never finishing a game. This way of thinking was what fueled my anxiety disorder further – constantly striving for a solution and not finding one.