The answer might be that most of us weren’t raised to be competitive. We had no way to unleash our anger, our pent-up energy—and we have needed a lifetime to find constructive ways to harness our inner strength without turning our aggression against ourselves and each other.
I came of age in the early 1970s, just before Title IX mandated that federally funded schools must offer equal opportunities for girls to take part in athletics (the act is now fifty years old). A girl couldn’t let anyone see her grimace or sweat. Even tennis was barely acceptable for a girl who wanted to be perceived as feminine.
I wasn’t really friends with anyone on our team. For that matter, I didn’t have any close female friends. I was the class brain. The other girls had been mean to me in seventh grade, and I didn’t trust other women. But I loved the sheer physical release pounding a ball provided. I would sit by the courts, waiting for anyone I could hit with. If no one showed up, I practiced against the wall. By junior year, no one could return my forehand. No one could get a racquet on my volleys.
Unless we were keeping score. Then I couldn’t hit a thing. I was convinced if I unleashed my full strength, I would destroy everyone in my path. At the least, my opponent wouldn’t like me.
Frustrated by my wimpiness, our coach planted herself at the net and demanded I hit my hardest groundstrokes.
“But I don’t want to hurt you,” I protested.
“You won’t,” Mrs. Nishman said. “I play net all the time, and I’ve never gotten hit.”
I slapped a weak forehand; Mrs. Nishman slammed it back. On this went until I whipped a forehand so hard the ball hit her in the face. She screamed.
I apologized, and Mrs. Nishman assured me that she was proud I’d hit the shot so aggressively. But after they had taken her to the hospital and she returned wearing a patch over the injured eye, I was even more reluctant to hit my hardest.
She took her position at the net again. “Come on, Eileen. If you don’t hit with me, you’ll never get over this.” When I refused, she told me to lob the ball so she couldn’t return it. Relieved, I lofted a lob toward the baseline. “I’ve got it!” she called. “Get ready to hit my overhead!”
What none of us anticipated was that wearing a patch over one eye throws off a player’s balance. Scuttling backward, racquet cocked, Mrs. Nishman stumbled and landed awkwardly. When she returned to school wearing a patch over one eye and a cast on one arm, my reputation as the most dangerously competitive female in the world was confirmed—at least to me.
Even more confusing was playing against my father. To make up for his lack of power, he had developed an arsenal of slices and spins. The ball would come corkscrewing through the air, tap dance, tell a few jokes, feint left, pirouette, and do the Charleston before dying in the dust before I reached it. With each point I lost, I grew angrier, but who wants to be angry at the father she adores, especially if he is teaching her to play the game she loves?
My only chance to redeem myself was my serve—not a maddening spin-serve like my father’s, but a down-your-throat ace he wouldn’t be able to touch. Unfortunately, the pressure to impress my father caused my arm to tense up like a board. My serve would fly so wild I seemed to be in the throes of some demonic possession.
“You would be a terrific player if only you could get your serve in,” my father said, but this only made the dybbuk twist the nerves in my arm even tighter.
Between the dybbuk in my arm and my fear of maiming my opponents, I reached the point where I was unable to win a game. I would enter a tournament, and when the adult male on the other side of the net saw me warming up, he would all but concede the match. Then he would bagel me 6-0, 6-0.
When I went to college, I tried out for the varsity team. Yale had only recently gone co-ed, and the pool of female players was still small. Impressed by how quickly I covered the court, the coach awarded me a spot, only to watch as I lost to far weaker players, until I was clinging to the very bottom of the JV ladder.
As the first female physics major at Yale, I knew I was at a disadvantage compared to the men in my classes. But I had no idea that we women on the tennis team were at a disadvantage compared to the men a few courts away. Our coach, Judy Dixon, a former pro who’d played doubles with Billie Jean King, had witnessed so much discrimination that she was reluctant to accept Yale’s offer to become a coach. But with the passage of Title IX, she hoped the system might have changed.
It hadn’t. The men’s team was allotted three courts to our one and received more funding. Judy’s salary was lower and her responsibilities more onerous than her male counterparts’. When her complaints went unheard, Judy sued — the first Title IX lawsuit lodged against any university. Yale demoted her, then harassed her until she quit.
“Suing Yale was similar to taking on the NRA,” Judy told me recently. “I was young and frightened, and when both my office and my job were taken away, I knew I had to leave. I was offered a financial settlement to drop the case, but I never was in it for the money, just for the change for women’s athletics.”
Eventually, Yale rectified the disparities between the men’s and women’s teams. Judy was long gone by then. But her lawsuit helped female athletes everywhere achieve equality.
Like many young people who have been stars in high school, then find themselves struggling to keep up in college, I couldn’t bear to think of myself as a loser. I excoriated myself for every point I lost in tennis, every question I failed to answer on an exam, every experiment I fucked-up in physics lab. I felt no one would take me seriously unless I distinguished myself as the very best—at everything. And yet, the harder I tried, the tenser I grew, until I found little joy in anything.
That’s when I discovered The Inner Game of Tennis. The author, W. Timothy Gallwey, advised his readers that “trying hard” isn’t necessarily a virtue. Each of us is divided into two selves: the “teller,” who orders the “doer” to do what the teller wants, then stands back and criticizes; and the “doer,” who, left to its own devices, learns to accomplish what is required. The goal is to distract the critical self and allow the natural self “to do its own thing unimpaired.” In tennis, such a distraction might entail muttering “hit!” when the opponent’s racquet hits the ball, then “bounce!” when the ball hits the court on your side of the net, then “hit!” as your own racquet hits the ball, then “bounce!” as the ball lands in your opponent’s court.
Reading Gallwey’s book, I felt I had discovered a new religion, albeit one to whose wisdom I was too immature to adhere. I might mutter “bounce,” “hit,” “bounce” for several rallies. Then I would think about how I only needed two more points to win, and I would stiffen up and flail at the ball like a robot whose circuits are misfiring. Or I would miss a first serve and be so afraid of double-faulting that my arm would send the second ball flying out of bounds. On and off the court, my critical self wouldn’t shut up, driving my natural self to such despair I could barely function.
Eventually, I abandoned physics for writing, which wasn’t any easier but allowed me the chance to pay more attention to my mental health and spend time with other women. In residence at a writers’ colony, I found myself on a tennis court defending my honor against a Russian novelist who bragged that a woman could never beat a man at anything. For once, I was able to vanquish my opponent—a victory that had less to do with any newfound toughness than with the fact that the novelist played in black socks and street shoes.
As was customary, I jumped the net to shake his hand. But I caught my foot on the tape and went sprawling. The pain was so intense I made an appointment to see a doctor. He asked me to walk around his office in my jonnie. “You want to know my diagnosis?” he said. “My diagnosis is you have great legs.”
Flustered, I thanked him and left, then kicked myself with my one good leg for not having had the presence of mind to slap him. Another doctor told me that I was a depressed, middle-aged woman who was using my imaginary back pain as an excuse not to have children. I swore never to visit another doctor and took to dosing myself with vast quantities of ibuprofen.
Despite the deadness in my arms and legs, I had a child. I followed my husband to Ann Arbor, then got divorced and joined a club for middle-aged singles. I played mixed doubles, but I couldn’t bear it when my male partners cursed and threw their racquets, or when they took me aside—usually, after they had sent yet another shot soaring out of bounds—to harangue me about how I might improve my game. A female member of the club suggested I might be happier playing in the USTA women’s league.
USTA? What was that?
Well, she said, you join a team where everyone is rated the same as you, then you compete against other teams.
A few days later, a pro watched me play and issued me a 3.5 USTA ranking. 3.5! I ought to be 4.0! I would show him.
My serve remained wonky and unreliable. I rarely won. But I loved the way my teammates slammed volleys at each other and then, genuinely concerned, said, “Sorry! Are you all right?” I bought goggles to protect my trifocal lenses, then took to slamming the ball right back.
For the first time in my life, I was able to view other women as my teammates. I loved high-fiving my partner after she hit a winner, loved staggering off the court with a Niagara of sweat cascading down my bra. My team began working out at a clinic run by the women’s coaches at the university where I taught. We cheered at their Big Ten matches.
“I love your spirit,” the head coach told me. “I can see you up there in the stands, waiting for a player to get injured so you can come down and take her place.”
Who knows, I might have achieved that 4.0 ranking (or turned pro and won the U.S. Open!), but the fistfuls of ibuprofen no longer could mask my symptoms. I screamed with every backhand. When my movements grew Frankenstein-ish, the coach asked what had happened to my agility and speed at net. The concern in her eyes surprised me. “Really? You don’t think it’s all in my head?”
The scorn with which she greeted this possibility gave me the courage to resume my search for a doctor who wouldn’t dismiss the numbness in my arms and legs.
“Geez, would you look at this.” The head of neurosurgery pointed to the spot where the vertebrae on my cervical spine were impinging on my central nerve-cord. “The only thing I can’t figure out is why the person who corresponds to this X-ray”—the surgeon tapped the film—“isn’t in a wheelchair.” He made me promise I wouldn’t play tennis—arching too far back to hit an overhead might leave me paralyzed. I didn’t ask if the surgery he described—slicing my throat and replacing the faulty section of my cervical spine with a transplant from a cadaver—might return me to the court. The procedure frightened me so badly I refused to consider it.
That is, until my elderly father fell, I picked him up and felt a zinger shoot up my spine and lost my remaining strength. I crawled —almost literally — back to the surgeon. Getting part of my spine hacksawed out was gruesome. But over the following year, the numbness in my arms and legs disappeared. I was fifty by then, but I caught myself entertaining fantasies of getting back on the court.
“Don’t you dare!” the surgeon cautioned. “Be grateful you can walk and aren’t in too much pain.” Of course, I obeyed common sense—and kept switching doctors until I found one who thought that the more I moved, the healthier and happier I would be.
Sensing I couldn’t return to my old style of playing, I called a pro and asked if he would give me lessons. Jim agreed, but only if I committed to starting over. I would need to learn to play what he called The True Game of Tennis. You didn’t step on the court to beat your opponent; you played to learn what the game had to teach you. About tennis. About yourself.
Until then, I had been the least Zen person in the universe. Why live in the present when you could worry about the future or beat yourself up about the past? What was baffling was that Jim didn’t seem much of a Buddhist either. By his own admission, he was farther to the right than Genghis Khan. He called every woman honey, sweetheart, dear. All we had in common, I thought, was tennis.
Then again, I was entranced by the beauty of his movements. He was as muscular as an aging Lance Armstrong and moved like Baryshnikov in his prime. Most amateur players want to imitate the pros, wielding windshield-wiper forehands to obliterate their opponents. Jim thought the pros were destroying their bodies with such violent motions. You did what you did because the beauty of the game required it. Keeping score? That was only to let you know it was time to switch sides or go home.
Jim became my therapist. My guru. My friend. I looked forward to nothing more than our lessons. In between, I would call to report on whatever matches I had lost. “Never mind, honey,” he would say. “No one is cursed. If you play tennis long enough, you will go through periods when all you can do is lose, and periods when all you can do is win. If you feel good hitting the ball—or writing, or loving another person—that talent, that openness to love, is always there inside, and you can draw on it at any time.”
I like to think I gave something back. When Jim mentioned he had lost the vision in one eye, I nagged him until he agreed to see a doctor. The surgeon found a malignant tumor. A few days after surgery, he was back on the court. Even with a glass eye, his playing was as precise and balletic as ever.
Then I wrote a book about why, despite my love for physics, I hadn’t become a physicist, why so few women even today become scientists of any kind, and this book about the most shameful failure of my life found an audience. I wasn’t famous, but I was able to quit teaching and move to Manhattan.
In some ways, playing tennis in New York was thrilling. My team competed on the fabled grass courts at Forest Hills and the immaculate hard-court venues at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, where I could barely believe that my sneakers were touching the same blue surface Serena’s fleet feet had touched.
Unfortunately, many of the women I played with were so ridiculously competitive they made me look like Mother Teresa. My opponents called my balls out when the balls were in. They accused me of cheating when I called their balls out (and really, their balls were out). If I flubbed a shot, my teammates weren’t shy about expressing their disapproval. The pressure grew so intense my dybbuk returned to haunt me. When I served, the muscles in my arm would jerk so violently I couldn’t keep the ball in the court. The captains stopped putting me in the lineup, then dropped me from their teams.
Things got so bad I planned to give up the game. Instead, I flew to Ann Arbor. “Please,” I begged Jim. “You’ve got to help me conquer this problem with my serve.”
He came up behind, laid his arm on mine, and helped me relax my swing. “So what if you miss your first shot? You’re still alive. You will be provided the joy of tossing up the ball a second time and giving your opponent a chance to hit it.”
By the end of the hour, I was serving so effortlessly I didn’t want to stop. Jim hugged me. But something felt wrong. I had flown all the way from New York. Why did he slip off to the locker room rather than hang around to gossip?
A week later, I got a call from another member of the Cult of Jim. The cancer in his eye had metastasized to his liver. Within a few weeks, he was dead.
COVID hit. New York closed its courts. I found a crumbling wall beneath a trestle, but the other hollow-eyed souls who had taken to wandering Manhattan with their racquets found the same wall and mobbed it. A friend and I took to hitting a ball across the Astroturf on a soccer field—the poor man’s Wimbledon—but that field grew crowded, too.
I fled to Boston. By the time we were all vaccinated, I wasn’t sure I wanted to return to playing. Some mornings I was so stiff I barely could get out of bed. But after surviving such a terrifying year, simply hitting a ball seemed miraculous. Whatever Jim had been trying to teach me had seeped into my soul at such a deep level that I no longer needed to think about playing The True Game of Tennis; I simply played it.
I am kinder to myself now than I used to be, and the kinder I am, the more pleasure I find in playing. The women I’ve met in Boston want to win their matches, but not at the cost of cheating. My newfound ability to remain in the moment, to silence my more critical self, has spilled over into everything I do, on the court and off.
Aging still terrifies me. And yet, I find solace in knowing I can step inside that 36-by-78-foot rectangle and accomplish what I always knew I could accomplish if only I could pacify the dybbuks that were haunting me. Trying too hard exhausts you. It doesn’t matter if you win a Nobel Prize in physics, write a literary masterpiece, or earn a trophy at the U.S. Open if you don’t enjoy carrying out an experiment, writing a beautiful sentence, or hitting a forehand that makes you feel as graceful as a ballerina.
Not long ago, my team faced a decisive match; if we won, we went on to sectionals. My partner and I squeaked out the first set. But I needed to hold my serve so we wouldn’t go down in the second. I grew so nervous I double-faulted and we lost the set, which meant we needed to win the tiebreak to take the match. I prepared to serve, every muscle tensing.
But then Jim came up behind me, so close I could smell the detergent clinging to his shirt. Honey, he said, the only reason to play tennis is for the pleasure of achieving whatever grace any of us can achieve before the score tells us it’s time to leave the court and stop playing the game forever.
I tossed the ball, looked up, and brought my racquet above my head, preparing to give my opponent the chance to enjoy returning it.