A New Meaning
Rafa Nadal is an incredible tennis player.
Since I started playing tennis, I have idolized the Spanish lefty. Through sheer strength and discipline, he has become one of the greatest players to ever play the game. When I was eleven, I decided I would follow Rafa’s path. I would play pro tennis, and I would be one of the best, just like Rafa. I understood it would be hard, and it would require me to work harder than everyone else around me. I was more than willing to make the effort.
For the next several years, tennis was my life. Before I even stepped on the court each day, I’d have a plan. Today I’ll work on transferring more weight onto my right foot when I step in on my forehand. For a week, I’d work on this one thing. Every time I was on the court, I’d lock in, fully committed to working on whatever I had planned, then I’d get home and study the video I had recorded of myself. Based on this, I could determine if I needed to keep working on this detail, or if I was ready to move on.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. I kept my head down and I worked. Progressively I was getting better, and I began qualifying for national championships.
However, I was still far from winning them. By comparison, Rafa was winning professional matches when he was fifteen. I was getting good, but not that good. I was improving, but not fast enough. I need more training. I need to play more tournaments. I need to play bigger tournaments, I thought. So I did.
The summer when I was fifteen years old, I played everything I could. I traveled around the country, playing in every major tournament. As soon as one tournament ended, I was on to the next one.
It was taxing. Heavy tournament schedules are tough on the body, and nearly every day, I woke up with some little pains somewhere on my body. I learned to get used to it, and after some stretching and ice, I was as good as new. Despite the physical difficulties, I loved every second. I was playing tournaments I couldn’t have qualified for a year ago, and my results were getting better. I was regaining the confidence I needed to reach my goals.
Heading into the fall, something changed. All of a sudden, one of those little pains wasn’t going away. I tried to mask the discomfort with some stretching and ibuprofen, but the nagging pressure in my lower back persisted. For the first time, my pain wasn’t getting better; it was getting worse. By October, I reached a point where I could no longer compete, and even my practices were limited. As soon as things seemed to be going well, I was hit with the first serious injury I’d ever experienced. Why now?
One cold early morning practice, it really hit me.
My friend was about to serve. He bounces the ball a few times, pauses, and tosses the ball up. Out of habit, I crouch down to get into my usual return position. His serve goes way out wide. I know what I have to do. I will push off my right leg, quickly shuffle about three steps over, then reach out to try to get a racket on the ball. This time, however, I don’t push off to the right. In fact, I don’t do anything at all.
Before this moment, it had never been a question of if I would do what was expected. I had my goals, and nothing would stop me. I was going to do what it took. But now, I’m injured. Now, I can’t compete. I’m nowhere close to professional tennis. For years, I’ve done everything I could to get there, yet the grass of Wimbledon Center Court seems as far away as ever.
My back only got worse. Eventually, I wasn’t even practicing. By December, I was entirely out of the game. My life had come to a hard stop. What have I been doing? Why am I doing it? I had to face some brutal facts. I’m injured. Why is life so unfair? I’ve worked as hard as anyone; don’t I deserve this? I’ve given the sport everything, and it’s given me nothing in return!
But that’s where I was wrong.
Yes, I had given the sport everything, my full commitment for years. But I was wrong in thinking that tennis had not given me anything in return. It’s true, I hadn’t gotten a National Championship trophy, or the opportunity to play on the luscious greens of the All-England Club at Wimbledon. Instead, the sport had given me things far more valuable.
Tennis taught me how to battle, how to stay in the fight even when everything seems like it's falling apart, and how to shut out all external thoughts from my mind and focus only on what was exactly in front of me. Because of tennis, I learned not only how to fight, but how to love the fight.
I’ve always wanted the challenge. Those matches where you win easily against a much weaker opponent? Nah. Those aren’t memorable. It’s about the ones where you had to bring out your best, where for those two or three hours on court, the world had shrunk to only this one game on this court. You learn to want the fight. The competition fuels you. Winning these battles is one of the best feelings in the world. Losing them can feel horrible, but even when you lose, you feel a sense of satisfaction. You’re glad you got to be a part of that struggle.
If I told you I came to these realizations overnight, that would be a lie. It took time to put it all together, but I couldn’t be happier that I did. If I had stayed in a disillusioned state believing tennis could only give me trophies, I probably would have quit soon after that injury. The better you get, the stiffer the competition, and the harder it becomes to keep winning trophies. It’s not enough motivation to get up early on the coldest mornings, just to chase that ever-moving fuzzy ball.
What about when you realize that chasing that little ball gives you a sense of satisfaction in itself? You always have your long-term goal: see how good you can get. But once you are actually on the court, you forget about this. It’s no longer about what’s happened in the past or what could happen in the future. You’re just in the moment. You have the simple goal of fighting for everything, not letting a single ball pass by you, and you love it. You’re so immersed into the battle that nothing outside of that court even crosses your mind. You just keep pushing.
What tennis has always given me is challenges. Do I always succeed? No. But do I always get better from it? Absolutely.
Today, I am fortunate to get to compete as a Division I tennis player at an amazing university. The level of competition is as tough as ever. And on top of that, the academic workload is intense. Regardless of how fatigued or stressed I may be from school, I am expected to perform at an elite level when I step onto the tennis court. This can be hard. It’s a whole new challenge, and yet at the same time, it’s just another one.
I’m grateful that I have tennis in my life as a means to push myself regularly. The truth is that no matter who you are or where you come from, there will be times when life will push you. There will be times when it really counts. You need to perform despite the circumstances, and be resilient despite the setbacks. If you’re not emotionally ready to handle these big moments, you might not get many more chances. So, how are you supposed to prepare for these moments? For me, this is tennis. Tennis has given me a space to push myself regularly. To experience the highest highs and the lowest lows and yet always have another challenge soon after.
I don’t know where I will end up in life. What I do know is that no matter what path I take, even once I finally set down the racket for good, tennis will always hold a special place in my heart. I am not Rafa Nadal, and tennis has not given me world championship trophies. I am Tomas Salgado, and tennis has shaped me into the person I am today. For that, I will forever be grateful to the sport.