Let me tell you about a kid who inexplicably loves tennis. Age 8, maybe 9. Never played the sport before and doesn’t even own a racket. But loves, LOVES tennis.
Her life is tough as hell. She lives in a shitty apartment block. Not a single adult encouraging her to eat healthy or to play sports or to drop her off at Saturday morning training or nothing. But still, she knows she is MEANT to play tennis. Daydreams that a tennis coach will catch her hanging around the apartment block and recognise her raw, untapped potential from just the way she walks or something.
But legit, she can’t explain it. It’s just a feeling. T Huang is destined for the courts. No idea why she loves this specific sport so much. Not an athletic bone in her body. A childhood of illness and trauma and a body physically so bent out of shape. Age 9: rushed to hospital from untreated pneumonia. Age 11: developed a concave chest – her shoulders just locked one day from being curved inwards so much in a shield. Age 13-18: eating disorder, sleeping disorder, respiratory illnesses – you name it. This kid, oh man – this kid was never gonna be an athlete.
And yet, through all of this – she kept loving tennis. Held on to this secret passion for years. Even got a racket at some point. Every day after school, you could find her hitting ball after ball against a car-park wall. Neighbours running out shouting, “Ai ya!! T Huang – what are you doing – you’re going to smash in a car window!!”
And I wish I could tell you that at some point a tennis coach walked by and discovered our protagonist. That a benevolent businessman donated free tennis lessons for all the underprivileged kids or some shit. That her parents worked a bunch of extra shifts and pooled together the money to finally get her those lessons. That our protagonist was rewarded for loving tennis. But of course, none of this ever happened. This isn’t THAT kind of sports story – the ‘sport is a great equaliser,’ ‘meritocratic Australian dream’ story. T Huang didn’t single-handedly raise her family out of poverty through tennis.
No, this isn’t that kind of story. But god – what happened was almost as unbelievable. What happened was even rarer than becoming a tennis star. Definitely harder and it took a lot more work. You see our girl – 1 in 1 million, a true talent, the first in many generations – actually made. it. out.
And not when she was in her 50s either – the age of the mid-life crisis. Or in her 30s or even in her 20s. No. Our protagonist – our scrappy little nobody, our émigré, our concave-chest protagonist who spoke for most her childhood with a wheeze – made it out she was 18.
Left home as soon as she could. Went to therapy every single week for almost a year after that. Even asked whether she could come in sometimes twice a week. Started fixing her eating, her sleeping, her finances. Started taking the right medication. Saw a psychiatrist, an optometrist, a respiratory specialist, a dietician. Figured out what she wanted to do with her life.
All of which is to say – our protagonist recovered in time to play a lifetime of tennis.
And let me tell you, oh man, oh man, did tennis live up to the hype. The first time she played, with a coach and proper instruction. Shit, you’ve never seen anyone freak out like that before. A true tennis jock. Took to the sport with such enthusiasm, committed herself with such gusto. Immediately started using words like “spin” and “pace”, ha!
But seriously, during those first lessons. I can’t even begin to tell you.
There is a common misconception that to be good at tennis you need to be strong. That you need to be strong to smash winners down the line and that you have to have a serve that is 1000000 miles an hour. But that’s not true, actually – the speed and pace in tennis comes not from force, but fluidness. It’s all about angles and timing and smooth motions.
And oh man, the day T figured this out and found her flow. The way her groundstrokes – in particular her backhand – CLICKED. She felt like a pro. The ball flying toward her and her taking her arms back and leaning in the exact right direction so that her body was right behind the stroke and then flicking her wrists so the racket drops just as the ball drops and then … the secret … stepping forward, spring-loaded weight releasing toward the sky, and the arms brushing UP UP UP …… the racket travelling an entire rotation across her body, all the way from her hips to over her shoulder. Drawing a full circle with her arms.
She barely put any force behind the shot, but that shit went flying. A comet blasting across the baseline – the sonic sounds of tennis all around. PEW-PEW-PEEEWWW.
And maybe this is what T always sensed about the sport. Why she loved it so much as a kid. She just knew – tennis was a sport of true equality. Anyone could beat anyone else if you learnt how to flow.
And don’t get me wrong, T Huang is not always flowing like this. The mechanisations of groundstrokes take years, if not decades, to perfect. And even longer still to become consistent. The downfall of a groundstroke is not lack of strength, but tension. And every beginner is always tense. And if you have tense arms your stroke will not flow. You will cut the stroke off before it can complete the full circle and no matter how hard you smash the ball, it will be flat.
But still – our T is on her way now. She can sense, in just the grip of her racket, that the face is open and her stroke will fly long. She can intuit from just the orientation of her belly button where the ball will travel. Can feel, in the trembling of the air around her, her racket has come late and she is now reaching. And – most impressively of all – she is starting to learn the footwork. Slowly, clumsily, with that classic T Huang furrowed-brow determination. Our girl is stumbling toward the future.
Backhand, left foot behind right foot.
Forehand, right foot behind left foot.
Moving diagonally across the court to cut the pace off the ball.
Big leaps, then a series of small steps to adjust.
Recovery, shuffle to baseline.
Staying low, knees bent, weight always shifting