Life in Fulda
May 19, 2012
It has been a while since I have written. It is strange how when I am writing often it becomes easy and when I get lazy and miss a few days or a week, all of a sudden it is hard to get back on track. I guess it is kind of like working out, dieting, and flossing, all of which are much easier to do when you have been doing them consistently. Funny how it is the things that are good for you that are often the hardest to make yourself do.
I am in Fulda, Germany, relishing the chance to not get up early. I don’t have many responsibilities or anything but I have been waking up early every day to go into the club and hit or go on bike rides and such with my host, Steve. But today Steve’s son, Thomas, has a match early so I’ve been left a bit to my own devices, which is nice.
Fulda is beautiful and once again I feel like things could not have worked out better. Besides the fact that apparently I could be making more money in a higher league, this experience, like Austria, is exactly what I was hoping for. Fulda is a sleepy little town with farmland in every direction. Although my calf has not fully healed, I got tired of waiting for it so I have started going on long runs, which are extremely satisfying and have actually felt alright. I love finding myself jogging through fields of grass, cows, and some sort of interesting yellow flower that will be turned into mustard soon. The pace of life is so slow it is hard not to be relaxed. It helps that I have a fair amount of freedom and independence. But mostly it is just refreshing to be part of a small community where people seem genuinely happy and content.
Gruen Weiss Fulda is a larger club than that of my Austrian team, boasting five hundred members as opposed to the one hundred and thirty of Gruen Weiss Steyr. It has ten clay courts, which are perfectly manicured and maintained. I still cannot believe how much effort and resources go into clay tennis. I was told the club spends ten thousand euros every year renewing it after each winter. That seems crazy to me, especially for such a small establishment. Besides the clay courts there are three indoor courts which are a weird kind of soft turf with little beads of plastic on top that make it slick so you can kind of slide like on the clay. I took a nasty fall though the other day while I was teaching a lesson to an old man. I tried to slide into a drop shot and my right foot stuck, sending me tumbling towards the net. Thank god I did not break my ankle or neck.
There isn’t much more to the club than the courts and indoor facility. There is no pool or fitness center. Just a clubhouse that, while dwarfing the Steyr facilities, is still very small and intimate. It is perfect for the members, many of who stop by after work to have drinks or dinner or play bridge.
The best part of my existence is the family with whom I am staying. Steve and Hanna Guy are the two head teaching pros at the club and together they run a tennis school that supports a very nice home about a mile and a half from the club. Although they do teach every day, neither of them seems to work overly hard or long hours, both being able to come back to the house for a relaxed lunch most afternoons.
It is great for me to stay with Hanna and Steve because they both played professionally on the tour and were actually top hundred in the world. It creates a good dynamic that is mutually satisfying for us because they understand the grind that I have been going through playing futures, and I have immense respect for how good they were and how tough it must have been for them to accomplish what they did. Steve is a kiwi—New Zealander—who played pro for ten years after getting a scholarship to Wichita State and Hanna is from the Czech Republic, where she was European Champion in the Age of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. They are both great people and have been extremely generous in letting me into their home and feeding me the lion’s share of their food.
I have become very good friends with Steve, who is a happy, laid back guy. I enjoy listening to him talk about his time playing the legends of tennis almost as much as he likes telling me about it, so it works out well for us. We’ve gone on runs and bike rides and many times just shared a few beers after he gets back from work. We even went to a queen cover band the other day at the local church festival. I can tell that Steve likes having me to pal around with a bit and he has been a great resource in learning about all the money tournaments and club leagues, since he did all this for years during his career. He even started training me some, which has been great for my game since I cannot remember the last time I had a coach working me out with a bucket of balls, drilling me until my heart is pumping and my legs burn.
Strangely, after coming to terms with the end of my career and putting myself in an environment where I cannot train that much, I am playing the best tennis of my life. Partly I think this is due to my game actually being well suited for clay and partly I am just very relaxed at the moment and not worrying about it too much. After a few weeks training on the dirt I have learned to shape the ball and have turned my forehand into the high, heavy, aggressive yet safe shot that I have been searching for all my life. My high backhand above my shoulders—always my weakness—has even improved as well since that is where I hit most balls here. Most importantly though, I am moving on the court well and have developed a patience and consistency that has never been possible on the fast, hard courts on which I grew up and spent my whole career.
Clay is a forgiving surface that provides time to think and prepare. It also neutralizes overly powerful weapons such as the serve, which have never really helped me much anyway. It allows for a creativity and presence in points because you cannot just blast through someone and end rallies quickly. You have to earn points, either through powerful ball movement, intense defense and consistency, or deft creativity and touch. In the past few weeks I realized that I am capable of all three and have been feeling more solid every day. We will see how I fare next week when I play a few tournaments with some better competition. But up to now, I have been pleased with myself and my progress, both in practice and the matches.
One of the more interesting aspects of living here in Fulda has been my interaction with Steve and Hanna’s son Thomas. Thomas is thirteen and very talented and his parents put a lot of pressure and emphasis on his tennis, although they want and try to be chill. It is just what they know and what they do. So they cannot help but be very involved in his practices and tournaments and push him to work harder and get the most out of his training. Like any normal thirteen-year-old boy, Thomas rebels by goofing around and blowing them off a bit. Basically just being a bratty teenager who you want to slap around sometimes. I am in a unique position to both watch and experience the Thomas/tennis dynamic because I am hitting with him every day, both as a favor to Steve and Hanna and because he is the best player I can hit with on the regular here in Fulda.
When I say Thomas is talented I mean it. Although he is skinny, he is as tall as me already—which I guess isn’t saying much—and he can hit a big ball. He also has very good hands and touch, which is why it sounds like he is always one of the top ten or twenty players in Germany for his age. But as talented as he is, it is like pulling teeth sometimes trying to get him to focus and work hard in practice. I am further removed than Steve so it does not bother me nearly as much when he fools around, but at the same time, I am out there to train and work hard myself and it is annoying when he just cannot get his act together and give a good effort. It is frustrating to watch and hard to deal with sometimes. Thomas is a great kid though and is definitely behaving like a normal thirteen year old. It is just new to me to be on this side of the struggle.
It is tough watching Thomas and Steve disagree over his tennis, especially after having gone through that same dynamic with my own father and growing up enough to see it for what it was. Steve is such a nice guy, cares a ton, and just wants the best for his son. But its probably tough for Thomas to have his dad be so involved and he is too young to really understand and get the most out of what Steve is trying to give him. I wish there was something I could do or say to either one of them to help alleviate the tension sometimes since I have the unique perspective of having lost my father while that stuff was all going on in our lives and before I matured enough to get past it. But people have to experience things for themselves. Hopefully they will have many years to connect and find each other a bit more once they get through the tennis dad relationship. It is just kind of eerie to be a spectator looking in. Besides that little bit of typical teenager drama it is great being a part of a happy household and I am thoroughly enjoying having the time to relax and explore the German countryside.
As far as the tennis is concerned, I think Thomas’ problem, which was my problem when I was young and I’m sure is every kid’s at that age, is that he takes no ownership of himself, his game, or his training. His parents tell him when to practice and what to do and lecture him all day about it. So he simply shows up and puts his body through the motions, not really thinking or even caring about what is happening. Although he gets mad when he misses and likes hitting good shots, his mind and his attention sometimes don’t seem to take stock of what is occurring on the court. So when he is angry it is a shallow, useless anger that is disconnected from himself because he doesn’t really care and there is no drive in it to change anything or make it better. I keep telling him that I understand being mad and yelling and throwing your racquet. But it only makes sense when you actually feel the emotion and there is a desire for improvement behind it. As if I should be the one to talk regarding the care of tennis racquets. I believe one of mine is still on the roof of the Israeli Tennis Center in Ashkelon.
But nonetheless, how do you get any thirteen year old in any sport to take ownership of his game, think about the things that he needs to work on, and be present enough to focus on them? I don’t know the answer to that, and if I did, I would probably be a millionaire and have solved the biggest problem in sports families today. Obviously it takes time and experience to develop the maturity to be self aware. But I would say that this awareness, and more specifically how early one develops such awareness, is what separates the ones who make it from the ones who don’t. Not even talent, but rather focus and mindset. Talent is probably what separates the journeymen lingering between #100 and #200 in the world from Nadal and Federer and the few others at the top of the game. But awareness and pressence is what allows them to maximize their potential and approach the top at all. At that level most everyone is maximizing their abilities so that is when talent comes into play and the few who were just gifted can distance themselves from the pack.
I am happy to have finally found the mental and emotional balance to at least maximize my own potential. I mean, I am sure I could be fitter and improve my serve and and have a six-pack and whatnot. Well maybe not the six-pack. But in terms of talent and effort and mindset I think I have finally arrived. Not to say I won’t still fight myself sometimes and get down and struggle. But the biggest change I feel in my game and my attitude is that I am aware and I own the experience. I have no coach. I have no trainer. I have no sponsor. I am just out here trying to do the best that I can. If I go on a run it is because I feel that is what my body needs. If I hit crosscourt backhands it is because I am trying to figure out what will make them stronger. For better or worse it is all me. My days are full and empty. Any day I want I can do everything or nothing. It is the blessing and curse of this lifestyle and not having a real job. And I am aware that it will not last long so I try to make the most out of it that I can. I finally have perspective and contentment. I know what I am, what I want, and why I am doing this, and it only took me twenty years to find it.
I guess when I think of Thomas and want to pound my knowledge into his head I am being unfair. A lot of things went into giving me the perspective I have now. I was just as bratty as Thomas when I was young. Probably more so, and it took my father passing away to slap me in the face enough to bring it into my consciousness. Nothing like a little guilt and regret to get you thinking about your actions. I wish more than anything I could go back and give Dad the respect he wanted and deserved when I was young and we were battling, but I cannot. That is not how life works. Whether or not I was being a normal teenager, we both suffered because of my immaturity and I didn’t really start internalizing it until the last couple years, or even few months.
I am not sure why I was so set on pursuing my tennis after college but I am glad that I have. What may have began as a sort of regretful continuance of my junior career and desire to achieve goals I could never quite grasp, has finally blossomed into a real understanding of what I had been missing throughout my time in tennis. I finally know what I was looking for and own the process and the results. And although I am constantly striving, I am finally happy and satisfied, which is all I could have asked from this experience.
As nice as it would be to go back and give this brain or this perspective to my fourteen-year-old self, he would not understand it without the context that created it. Thomas will have to figure things out for himself and Steve will eventually relax and allow him to do it. And like I said before, hopefully they will be able to laugh about it on the other side. I wish I had been able to do that. But not everyone gets those opportunities. I am not religious but hopefully I will see Dad and talk to him again someday, somewhere, and we can laugh and share and find each other again. But for now things are what they are and with luck that won’t be for some time still. The best thing I can say for right now is that although it may have taken me over twenty years to make peace with the sport that has been so much of my life, at least I did it in time to truly enjoy the last few months of my career.