By Marjorie Antohi, University of Chicago
In the spring of my junior year of college, I wrote an essay (highlights included below) for an English class about my experience as a Division III tennis player. It was the first piece of writing that I had been proud of in years. I didn't know this as I was writing it, but the tournament that the essay is framed around would be the last one of my college career. I missed the ITA Regional tournament the following fall because of a job interview, I missed my team's winter quarter matches because I was studying abroad, and, like all other college athletes, I was unable to participate in the rest of the spring season due to Coronavirus. Having my experience as a college athlete cut short has made me realize how special that experience was.
Playing a Division III sport was at times draining, frustrating, and unnecessarily stressful. For me, it was also perpetually worth it. It is rare that we have the opportunity to take a game as seriously as we do, and to be taken as seriously as we are, when we compete. It is immeasurably special that we get to spend hours and hours training, traveling, and competing with teammates who all share the same dedication to their sport. Being a Division III athlete has taught me a great deal about discipline, introduced me to some of my closest friends, and allowed me to continue doing throughout college one of the things I enjoy doing most: playing tennis.
When I first realized that the season was over, it broke my heart to think that there would be no more van rides, no more early-morning practices, no more spending weekends traveling and competing with my teammates. But what hurt most was seeing my teammates at our final meeting. The only senior, I felt like an outsider seeing the bonds they had formed while I had been abroad, their complicit laughter at inside jokes, and their artless delight at being in each other’s presence. Knowing that I would never be a part of that dynamic again was the most painful part.
UChicago finished the season 8-1 and were ranked 8th nationally
I believe that this is a time for us to be grateful for the things we have. Coronavirus has robbed me of the opportunity to end my college athletics career with any sort of tidiness or grace. It has also killed thousands of people (so far), infected hundreds of thousands more, and will indefinitely continue to impact all of our lives. We as Division III student athletes have been so, so privileged to have the ability to let sports play such a central role in our college lives. I am so lucky to have had the experiences that I had. I hope that in the future, this virus will help us remember that.
MARJORIE ANTOHI/SPRING 2019
Playing Tennis at the University of Chicago
This sounds shallow and cocky, but if I hadn’t gotten All-American status this year, I probably would have quit the tennis team. Down a set to a freshman from Amherst and choking back tears in between points, I felt the sickening realization that I could very easily lose my first-round match in the NCAA tournament slide slowly into my consciousness, first a dull recognition and then a stabbing awareness which broadcasted itself with sharp and unavoidable clarity in my mind. As I prepared to serve in the first game of the second set, I recited in my head the speech that I would deliver to my coach when I quit. I can’t play tennis for this school anymore. Not because of how I feel about the team or the sport-- but because of how playing this sport makes me feel about myself. I felt as if I simply wouldn’t be able to stand another moment of feeling the way I did-- bloated, sleep-deprived, and zombie-like, disgusting myself by making the same mistakes that coaches had tried to correct in me for years, losing to a woman I probably could have demolished before coming to college. And then I thought about going back to campus. I thought about what I would tell my teammates and friends. Is this the kind of person I am, now? I asked myself. The kind of person who loses first round in straight sets? The kind of person who just gives up?
Antohi, second from right, and her teammates at the NCAA championship
In challenging moments, I turned to my assignment, or my opponent, or whatever challenge I was facing, and decided to beat it. And, sometimes, I lost. But I won enough to get myself to where I am now.
This sort of solitary, self-serving attitude of competition is something that was acknowledged consistently by the teammates I interviewed as one of the more redeeming aspects of playing tennis. [Teammate #2] stated, “I actually do like that tennis is an individual sport … I think being in an individual sport allowed me to show myself that there’s no one else to blame, really, but myself.” As [Teammate #2] suggests, having no one else to blame is part of what makes the sport enjoyable, because of the sense of control and responsibility with which it invests the player as a result of their isolation. [Teammate #1] spoke of enjoying the competitive aspect, saying, “I’m a competitive person, so being able to have that competitive aspect in my life is something that I’ve lost which is just kind of sad, and I’m trying to find that in other facets of my life as well.” Competition and problem-solving were regularly heralded as compelling elements of the sport, as well as the challenges of managing your own emotions and trying to figure out your opponent. The consistent recognition of all of these things by interview subjects who have all played tennis for most of their lives demonstrates the importance of mental strength in playing tennis.
Even though it’s not as tangible of a skill as strength or agility, mental fortitude can be just as instrumental in winning matches as a player’s physical capability. Along these lines, [Teammate #1] discussed the “instant loss factor” in tennis that may not be as prevalent in some other sports. “In a sport like soccer, yeah, I mean, you feel some type of loss, like, when the other team scores a goal, but that’s not that often. ...With tennis,” she said, “there are so many points involved in it that each point, it’s hard not to feel like you messed up… even if someone just, like, hit a winner on you or aced you or something like that, there’s still this, like, ‘oh, I messed up’ type of factor, and then you have to rebound from that and perform in the next point”. [Teammate #3] also referred to the “short memory” that tennis players need in order to move from point to point, as did [Teammate #5], who talked about having trouble with moving on from lost points and preventing them from affecting the rest of her match. It is draining, but for me the mental aspect of tennis has also been the sport’s saving grace. The development of mental strength through experience is why an advantage is conferred to veterans of the sport who have played many long matches over players who are new to competition, even though they might seemingly be more physically or technically adept. It is also why, even after my technical skills and stamina have deteriorated throughout college, I still win matches. To the utmost best of my ability, I refuse to lose points, and try to forget that the ones that I do lose even happened. I target weaknesses in my opponent and force down surges of anger and anxiety and allow myself to convince myself, for the two hours or so that I am on the court, that what I am doing makes sense. The fact that this approach often works makes it seem as though winning matches is something that can be done almost entirely through sheer force of will.
The pure, thoughtless physicality of the sport is something else that my interview subjects also brought up across the board and something that I have relished as an escape from the endless cycles of homework and social politics that seem to dominate undergraduate life here. “I like the feeling of hitting the ball,” [Teammate #5] said in response to a question about her favorite things about tennis, with a grin that spread across her entire face. “That’s really nice. It’s a good, like, stress-reliever, to just smack the ball around.” [Teammate #1], too, spoke of enjoying tennis as a stress-reliever, and [Teammate #4] brought up tennis being a good workout as one of the things that she enjoys most about the sport.
The void of physicality is something into which I increasingly attempted to immerse myself as my match against the Amherst woman at NCAA’s progressed. After winning the second set and hitting an overhead winner early in the third, I made a fist with my left hand and punched the air, yelling “Come on!” as loudly as I could. It echoed up and down the indoor courts, and I felt the feeling that makes me want to still play tennis. It’s a feeling of power, and safety, and joy. That feeling exists nowhere else for me.
But the Amherst player was too good for me to just turn my mind off and lose myself in the activity of hitting the ball.
The reality is, as college students who are increasingly on the cusp of beginning our lives out of school and in the real world, my teammates and I are all approaching very quickly a future which will not include competitive tennis or being on a team or having the chance to travel around the country and represent the University of Chicago by playing the sport that we love. As our time in college progresses, we continue to take on more significant academic and professional obligations. While I understand that an adult, tennis-less future looms ahead of me, I almost feel a sense of inertia when it comes to playing tennis. I have been doing it so seriously and for so long that I simply can’t imagine being a student and not playing for my school.
By the end of the third set in my match with the Amherst woman, I was convinced that I was going to lose. My coach came to the bench to talk to me during changeovers, emitting a flurry of words and insisting adamantly that I would win. “I don’t know,” I told him. “I just don’t know what to do.” My opponent ended up having a match point in our third set tiebreaker, during which we proceeded to engage in one of the longest rallies of the match. I was being too defensive and could feel her pushing me back in the court. At that point, she deserved to win. I closed my eyes and somehow hit a miraculous, out-of-the-blue winner which I expected to miss and which made the Amherst girl’s eyes widen with disbelief. Two errors on her part later, the match was mine.
“Aren’t you happy?” my coach asked me afterward. I didn’t know how to answer. I was shocked, exhausted, relieved. I had gotten a taste of the feeling that would propel me on this journey for just a little bit longer.
As [Teammate #3] said in my interview with her, some of the best things about tennis are its unpredictability and its emphasis on individual responsibility and merit. I thought she summed it up well. “If you win,” she said, “it’s all on you. And if you lose, it’s all on you.”