My fingers squeezed the worn leather grip as if I was holding onto a branch at the edge of a cliff. My muscles tightened and refused to dip into ‘muscle memory’ as fear swept through each fiber. My feet refused to move, and my toes felt like they had turned into thick lead pellets. It was too late to wait for grit and determination to take over. I had succumbed to the fear of losing. The stakes were not high. It was a humid Saturday morning, the first round of a club-level tennis match with no one in attendance. The strings on my racquet let out a feeble ‘pop’ as the ball traced a soft arc, landed on my side of the court, and limped to the net. Game, set and match to my opponent. As I watched a heaven-bound bird circling upwards, carried by invisible wind currents, my fear of losing coming to fruition sent a visceral shock through my system. That would be the last time I played a competitive tennis match. I did not want to endure the rattled nerves that went along with facing another match point.
As I transition from life’s ‘green’ half to its ‘golden’ one, separated by an amorphous milestone, marked by a few more grey hairs, wisdom that is not fully baked, at least in my case, my harsh stance on the rigid winning-losing dichotomy has softened. Winning or losing, succeeding or failing, only matter if I think they count. Playing the game of life, moment by moment, not just well enough, but to the best of my ability, I find, blurs the lines between the expected and actual outcome. The harder I work, the greater the reward in the immediate moment. That reward isn’t a magical ability to create something unique or generate novel ideas. It is the shaking off the worry and fear about the future.
As I was writing this post, I pulled up the video on YouTube of the last few points of the longest tennis match in history. At the 2010 Wimbledon, John Isner and Nicholas Mahut battled for 11 hours and 5 minutes in the first round. I remembered the two players who dueled for so long, sending a furry yellow ball across the net, but I had forgotten who won that match. Winning or losing in that match did not matter, both were celebrated and praised for their effort. Remarkably, 168 consecutive service games were held between both players until John Isner broke Nicholas Mahut’s serve in the 183rd and final game of that historic match.
Until the match referee calls the last point, the players on either side of the net have similar objectives. Both cannot afford to make mistakes and give the point away. For one of the players, it is one point away from the match. For the other, it is one point away from extending the game and clawing victory from inevitable defeat. Neither gives up, and the slog continues. The longer and harder they duel, the blurrier the lines get between victory and defeat. In the end, both are winners in the crowds’ eyes.
Life expects us to ‘hold serve’ by not giving up. Each moment is like a match point. However daunting or impossible the obstacles may appear, what matters is our effort to force fate to give in and make way for us to reach our dreams. There is a continual mental tussle between “it’s too hard, try something else that is easier” and “keep going, no matter the odds.” Giving up isn’t a one-off event but a gradual process of leaching determination from each moment which ultimately tips the balance towards not trying anymore. So, if this moment is ‘match point,’ how would you play it?