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miércoles, 4 de abril de 2012

My favourite hobby (1)





I started playing tennis when I was 9. It was summer, and my mother´s best friend and my own decided that we had to do some sport. First they thought of the gym, and after that, I don´t know how, my friend´s mother found a tennis club near our house.

Sure, why not, my friend and I thought. I had played tennis when I was 4 and apparently I hated it (don´t even remember), so I still had a racket (wood made, one of those Bjorn Borg used 40 years ago, which I used during my first drill session in order to determine our level. My friend did better than me, but I thought it was my racket´s fault, so after one week playing I bought a new one. After that things started going better. My technique wasn´t the best, but a mix of competitiveness (I hated losing so much) and being quite athletic (I usually won all the really long matches) were enough to advance levels at a decent path and leave my friend behind.

I remember very well my first two matches. The first one I lost 6-4. I think I didn´t get too angry then (losing my cool on the court has made me break a couple of rackets). The second I lost 10-8. Still, few weeks after that I was at a higher level (there were 14 at the time) than both players. After a few months I was playing with the best of the club. I loved both training and competition. But soon after I started playing competitively most of the best players left the club. There were some issues in a couple of tournaments involving parents (who oftentimes took it more seriously than their kids), and so our trainer decided he didn´t want our club to be present in any more tournaments. It was a letdown for me and I thought about going to another club. But I wasn´t that good, and at the time I started having problems at my wrist, and because there was no club at a decent distance from home I just stayed there playing for fun and winning quite frequently some of the internal tournaments.

Once I started attending university the tendinitis in my wrist was giving me a lot of trouble. I visited the doctor many times, but the creams I was told to use didn´t do me any good. I remember my trainer telling me to just ignore the pain and apply ice to the wrist after playing, but it was very painful and I thought he was crazy anyways (my trainer was one of a kind), so there were many months where I didn´t play at all or where I had to change my backhand, by far my best shot, from two handed to one handed, and it really sucked (I said at the beginning I´ve never been the most skillful of players).

I remember being really frustrated during those years. My backhand was subject to my wrist problems (I forgot to mention I had the tendinitis in my left wrist), and my forehand had always sucked. I have always have a tendency to do things differently that others, so I had the most weird forehand (something like this) which gave the ball a lot of spin but made it difficult to achieve winners.

During my exchange year, in Berlin, Germany, I played quite a lot with an Italian friend of mine. We played almost every week, and I was clearly better than him, but I still I was very frustrated when playing against him, since I could barely dominate the game with my shitty forehand. So when I returned to Cordoba, my hometown, and started playing during the last year of university, 2007-2008, I decided to change the grip of my forehand and start playing just like everybody else. This may sound easy, but it is the hardest of things to change the way you have done something fore more than ten years. At the beginning it was terrible. I just could not keep the ball in the court, and I kept on changing between my old and my new grip. I played few months like that and I felt really frustrated, since I had been playing fore more than ten years I could by no means be considered a good player. As I said, my two hands backhand was still pretty good, but the tendinitis in my wrist didn’t make things easy.

But I still loved the sport, and a week after I had arrived to Beijing in 2008 to start my China adventure I had already contacted a French guy in the Internet to start playing together. The guy was pretty good, and the first time we played he destroyed me. Still in the forehand transition phase I had no confidence in my game, and after we played I was afraid he would not want to play with me any longer.

Fortunately with me he was too busy to find another tennis partner (he was running a business), and so we kept on playing occasionally. My forehand still sucked, but when my left wrist was in good condition I could more or less be a decent adversary. During 2008-2009 I played with him many times. He would usually beat me, but some times (very few), with a lot of effort, I could outplay him.

In 2009 I got a one-year scholarship to study Mandarin at the Peking University. We were living in the dorms for foreigners, which were ten times better than those for Chinese. They were in the west side from the campus, quite far away from the classrooms, but still I found the location wonderful: they were ten meters away from the tennis courts. I played a lot that year, I’d say at least once per week. I was still very frustrated at my game (you know, in my head I have always been a great player), but during this year I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. While my backhand still sucked there were times (not very often though) when I was felt relatively comfortable hitting the forehand. A big letdown was when I tried to make it for the Peking University tennis team.  In order to be in you had to beat the two guys of your group. The great organizing guys from Peking University put the three foreigners there in the same group, so that only one could be part of the team (as everybody knows, China is a pro-multicultural country, as it can been seen from their visa policies and the easy access of foreign internet sites). I first had to play against a German guy. He told me he hadn´t played in years, so I had hope. When we starting warming up I was sort having the initiative, but little by little he started playing better, and by the time we were about to start the match I wasn’t that confident anymore. He destroyed me 4-0 (in my defense I have to say that I had not played against a left-handed player for years, and that makes things much harder).

But I also had some glory while at Beida (short in Chinese for Peking University). In May I joined the Peking University Open. It gathered more than 60 players all around Beijing (probably no more than 20 people played decent tennis at Beida), and it would be a two days tournament. Sounded exciting.  For the first round I had to play in a four people group, best of four games, out of which the best two would classify. My first game was against a very tough opponent, but after a long fight I ended up winning. The other two guys were Korean, one pretty good and the other pretty bad. I ended up defeating both of them.  As it has happened to me many times in China, I am sure the good player from Korea was much better than me, but his strategy and competitiveness weren’t as good (my technic sucks, yeah, but I have been playing tournaments since I was nine). After that I had to play in the 32 best, already a one set match. I don’t remember the details, but I won the first match and then returned to the dorms to be received as a hero by my Spanish friends. The second day awaited, and after a good night sleep (I used to love the feeling when I was a kid when you went to bed anxiously waiting for the next morning tennis tournament) I was ready for the battle.

The match was at nine or ten am, and I knew my opponent very well.  He was the tennis trainer at Beida. He was a middle aged man in his forties, and a real dick. I could explain further, but let’s just say he wasn´t the nicest of persons. It was my opportunity to show him some good manners. I beat him 6-0 in which it is one of the happiest memories in tennis I have.

After him I won one of two more games, and without realizing it I had made it to the top 4 of the tournament. The guy I had to play with wasn’t a beginner. Our level was similar, but his forehand was clearly better (no wonder). After half an hour of battle I was leading 4-3. I would have easily defeated him, but, unlike most of the Chinese guys I have played with, he was a smart guy, and he realized my forehand sucked, and so he played all the balls there. I ended up losing 6-4.

My feelings after the tournament were mixed. I had won lots of games, but at the end of the day I was still disappointed at my forehand, over which I didn’t have much control. That was already in May (God it was hot at Beida), and after a few more weeks I returned to Spain for the summer. I had applied for two scholarships to study a MA in the United States. I applied for two scholarships, and having passed the screening phase for both of them I had to attend the interviews, one in June and one in September. That meant I had to be stuck in Spain for the whole summer. I didn’t play much tennis during that summer and, worst of all, I didn’t get any of the scholarships (good thing I didn’t, now that I think of it), so at the end of September I was back in Beijing. I didn’t know it back then, but that year in Beijing was the beginning of a professional career I would have never thought of. And most relevant for this entry, the beginning of a new age in my tennis career.