Opinion | Rafa When I’m Up, Kyrgios When I’m Down

Opinion | Rafa When I’m Up, Kyrgios When I’m Down

There are moments when I believe, with some evidence, that I am a 35-year-old adult in full command of my emotions. Then there are the moments I play tennis.

To illustrate my deficiencies, let’s go back about a year ago to a lovely cool evening in the early fall. The theater for the meltdown is a tennis club in Durham, N.C.; the antagonist, my friend Sam. Imagine green clay courts swept clean, awash in supple glow from the humming lights above, pine boughs communing in quiet susurration beyond the fence. All very idyllic … provided you’re not a head case.

But, rotten luck, I am. In that disastrous first set against Sam, I caught myself mimicking the behaviors of Nick Kyrgios — glum and angry, dissatisfied as a foundational principle, shaking my head at the unfair world even on points I won.

I had no cause to expect greatness, and no cause to erupt in its absence. I came to the sport just three years ago, and though I applied myself with the zealous devotion of a late convert, lost time and dubious natural talent make for a low ceiling. Compare my plodding game with the balletic grace on display at the U.S. Open and you’d need a full forensic team to confirm it was the same sport. Yet there I was, rank amateur, behaving outside logic and propriety, petulant and moody in a match with no stakes.

On the tennis court, free from the shackles of self-control, I fluctuate between emotional states with such thoughtless speed that I must be an amalgam of various demons.

If you follow tennis, you understand that it would be impossible to pick a worse demon than Mr. Kyrgios, and my game fell accordingly into shambles. More humiliating than missing shots, than losing, was my attitude. I knew Sam well enough that I felt no obligation to preserve any personal dignity, so I whined, cursed and lamented the wind and the bounces and most of all myself.

In the excellent book “The Inner Game of Tennis,” W. Timothy Gallwey theorizes that every tennis player has dual personalities — there is the self who executes the shots and the self who watches. The watcher, at the end of the point, turns into the critic, and I know Mr. Gallwey is on the money because I frequently demean myself with a vigor and intensity that is somehow free of self-loathing — as if I’m yelling at an entirely different person. Someone stupider, slower and less athletic than the real me; a sluggish dope who keeps ruining my perfect plans.

In short, disaster was imminent. I lost the first set badly. I was doomed.

And then my wife arrived — a surprise visit on the way home from work — and her presence changed everything.

I couldn’t let her see me in such pathetic straits. We actually have fun when we play (a radical concept I would never allow to taint a competitive match), and she didn’t deserve to watch her husband diminish himself to a puddle of angst.

In desperation, I forced a personality shift. No more Kyrgios — it was time to play like my hero Rafael Nadal. If I was going to lose, I decided I would lose nobly — full effort on each point, no complaints and a short memory to preserve the purity of my quest. In front of my wife, I would become Rafa.

“Fake it til you make it” might be the world’s most irksome advice, but this time it worked. I was a man transformed, my level rose, and suddenly we had a match. I won the second set in a tiebreaker, and though my wife was long gone by then — amateur tennis is never as riveting to spectators as it feels to the players — I’d tasted the drug that is relentless positivity, and I rode the high to a close, exhausting victory in the 10-point match tiebreaker.

The reason I remember that night so well, I think, is not the win but the way I conquered the darkness and approached my perfect competitive self — the state of being I dream of occupying permanently, the state that is mostly inaccessible even temporarily and the state that this sport has allowed me to pursue with a monomaniacal fervor. When I walked off the court that day, I promised myself that no matter how I struggled in the future, I would compete with the mind-set of Rafa. I would be optimistic, passionate and committed until the final point.

I failed, of course. Instantly and comprehensively. There’s a reason Rafa is special.

Still, when considering the various facets of my three-year tennis obsession, what I love most are these fleeting moments when I transcend my frailties and become — pardon the embarrassing hyperbole, but this is how it feels — Buddha-like. For someone with a brain that won’t shut up, it’s a rare path to meditation.

Be warned, though: Tennis will assault your fragile psyche.

I’ve played Sam more than I’ve played any other human being, and the truth is that he’s more Rafa-like than I’ll ever be. When I started out, he was far better, but he played with me anyway, week after week, though I never beat him once and I’m sure he got bored. When I finally broke through, maybe on our 20th match, he had the courtesy to laugh when I dropped my own Vitas Gerulaitis line on him: “Nobody beats Shane Ryan 21 times in a row.” Nothing changed for him as the gap narrowed — he is a bona fide adult.

I am too … sometimes. And sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I make excuses while we confer by the net after the match. Sometimes I forget to tell him how well he played. Sometimes I hurry off to nurse my injured pride. It’s as though I’ve given myself tacit permission to cede the control I exhibit elsewhere, to live at the mercy of secret caprice and act out whatever frustrations seep through from life. It gets uncomfortable only later, when I have to ask the inevitable question: Who am I, exactly?

Yet for all the breaking down, tennis has inspired in me a deep and somewhat embarrassing obsession. I catalog the journey by the endless injuries, the hours spent on a tennis message board, the over 100 United States Tennis Association matches that remain seared in my memory.

I’m still not very good. Improvement happens in fits and starts, but my skill doesn’t come close to matching my commitment. Which is gravy to me, because this is clearly about channeling the existential spark. It’s about convincing myself that transcendence isn’t always a myth.

In this quest I am not alone. So when you witness the ethereal grace of the men and women in Flushing Meadows, know that there’s a fanatic in Durham, and others like him all over the country, who, though they are slower and heavier and clumsier and probably older than the gods on TV, have nevertheless used tennis to chase nirvana. Past the pain, past the degradation, our dogged cult strives for a glimpse of the sublime.

Shane Ryan is the author of “Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New P.G.A. Tour” and an editor at Paste magazine.

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