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A Trio of Embarrassments

A Trio of Embarrassments

While it's certainly nothing to be proud of, it's a virtual rite of passage in the course of one's development in attempting to become a serious competitive tennis player: throwing your racquet.

Of course, if you plan on being respected as both a legitimate player as well as a true sportsman, it's a habit you must break yourself of, the sooner the better. Throwing tennis racquets in frustration and anger shows poor sportsmanship, immature and childish behavior, and a total lack of self-control. Besides, you absolutely look like an idiot.

It's something that almost anyone who has ever played tennis has in all likelihood done. When seeing juniors do this, it's bad for it paints an ugly picture of the kind of positive image that the sport embodies and embraces. If you can't control your behavior on the court, this is probably not a good sport for you.

Smashing racquets is bad, too, but throwing racquets in a temporary fit of rage is worse in that you might even hit someone with an ill-conceived or poorly executed racquet throw as opposed to simply damaging or destroying your own equipment. Neither one is the kind of unbecoming behavior expected from someone playing a sport that prides itself on sportsmanship and emotional control while in the heat of battle.

It took me a number of years to eventually get myself under control playing junior tennis, since I had a bad temper and didn't handle losing particularly well. While it didn't manifest itself in cheating, it certainly didn't stop me from the occasional smashing or chucking a tennis racquet in an exasperated state of utter frustration. I have distinct memories of getting so angry at myself on the court that it almost felt like you'd been temporarily "tennis-tazered" and that you were incapable of controlling your actions. You had been emotionally short-circuited, even if for only a brief instant, but still unable to stop yourself from doing something which you knew was unequivocally wrong.

One of the earliest examples of this took place at my local courts where I was learning how to play. It was in the New Rochelle, New York, Recreation 13 and Under Tennis Tournament. I was far from an accomplished player at that stage and had just begun to learn how to compete. I was playing an opening round singles match against another young competitor. While I won the first set, I lost the second set, requiring us to play a deciding third to determine the winner. I was so mad at having lost the second set that I flung my racquet backwards without looking towards the fence behind me. However, I released it at the wrong point. Not only did it not go into the fence but it flew over the fence and got stuck in the branches of a pine tree behind the courts. Not having a back-up racquet to play with, the sign of an experienced player, I had to leave the court to retrieve my only racquet, which was now stuck in a tree, to continue playing the match.

Of course, plenty of people were sitting outside the courts on the hillside, not necessarily watching the match, but patiently waiting for a court to open up so they could play, and suddenly wondering who was this hot-headed, immature, punk chucking a racquet over the fence and what was his problem? I'm sure that they must've looked at me with disdain because I certainly felt embarrassed. The fact that I won the match was small consolation for how my poor display of behavior was viewed by anyone who had unfortunately viewed the match. I was now seen as a poorly behaved bad sport on the court with little self-control, capable of winging a racquet in a rage at a moment's notice. Where it landed was anyone's guess, including the idiot who threw it.

The next time which I clearly remember having a vivid memory how bad throwing a racquet could be took place during a minor challenge match at Port Washington Tennis Academy, not even a legitimate sanctioned tournament. I was probably 16 years old by then, ostensibly a bit more mature and polished as a player, but clearly far from being a mentally strong, formidable competitor who knew what he was doing. It was a ladder match against a decent fellow who I was certainly a better player than, or at least in my mind I sure thought so. He was a friendly guy, not a mean-spirited, nasty, win-at-all costs competitor. However, being a bit over-weight and fairly slow, I figured that I'd roll over him, no problem whatsoever. But as you find out in tennis, either over-confidence or under-estimation of an opponent are both deadly mistakes.

While I thought I was the far superior player, anything can happen and I lost to my opponent that day, to someone who I clearly felt I should've defeated easily. As I was walking up to the net to shake hands, desultory in my lackluster performance, I attempted to fling my racquet into the net in absolute disgust with my poor play. However, instead of landing in the net, which was my intention, it gained height and flew over the net, hitting my opponent. I was chagrined at my own behavior and what I'd just done, even if it was an inadvertent mistake. He certainly didn't deserve that, and my little faux pas made me look like an absolute jerk who had no business even playing tennis if they were going to act like that just because they'd taken a frustrating, albeit meaningless loss. I didn't throw the racquet hard and it certainly didn't draw blood, but I knew that I'd misbehaved and had crossed the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior on the court.

However, it was the next time (and the final time) that I'd throw my racquet in the juniors, which eventually proved to teach me a lesson and break me of this nasty habit. I was playing a USTA Eastern Tournament out in Westbury on Long Island. While played at an unimpressive public park with steel nets on the tennis courts, which clanged loudly when you hit a ball into them, it was still a big event for me, a national qualifying tournament. If you did well in this final big Spring tournament, then you'd probably qualify as one of the handful of players endorsed to play on the larger and more prestigious national circuit that Summer against the best players in your age group from across the country.

I had played reasonably well during the Eastern Winter tournaments, having a few good wins as well as having played some of the highest-ranked Eastern juniors tough, losing close matches. You could say that I was on the bubble, one of the last guys vying for the final few spots entitling you to then go out and play on the national circuit, something that I'd never done. No more competing in places like Oneonta, Schenectady, and Utica, it was off to Louisville, St. Louis, and Kalamazoo. I knew that if I had just one more strong outing, maybe one more good win, then I'd be one of the last players chosen from the East to receive the necessary endorsement allowing me to finally play the national circuit.

I ended up playing a guy from the Bronx who was about the same level that I was at, so we were both competing for the same spot and had comparable records. I figured that whoever won this match would be the one to go. I remember splitting the first two sets but slowly seeing the match slip away beyond my control, losing 6-4 in the third set. It was a crushing blow, especially considering that I knew that my chances of playing the national circuit had just slipped from my grasp when I was excruciatingly close. While I was a much stronger player and better competitor by then, I was also still immature and capable of churlish behavior. I winged my racquet, which took off like a frisbee, started to rise, soared over the fence and landed on top of a baseball backstop just beyond the tennis courts.

After I shook hands with my opponent, I then proceeded over to the baseball diamond, where they were in the middle of a Little League game, to retrieve my racquet. The umpire had to stop the game while I climbed up the backstop to get my racquet. Adults watching, kids watching, anyone on or nearby the tennis courts or involved with the tournament watching as this idiot had to climb up the backstop to get his racquet from up there, thrown in an incredible fit of anger. Naturally, I was embarrassed. Who wouldn't be? Nobody was hurt and I was able to get my racquet back, but it would take a while longer to get back my dignity, my reputation, and my damaged self-image. I'm pretty sure that was the last of my racquet throws.

Losing was bad enough, but to have everyone nearby looking at you, either laughing at your actions or being appalled and disgusted with your behavior, may've been even worse. I knew that I had to curtail that kind of unacceptable behavior, and pronto. Losing a hard-fought match was tough, but sacrificing your reputation was without a doubt an even worse outcome. No one will likely remember whether you won or lost the match, but your conduct, behavior, and sportsmanship will invariably stick in their memory for a long time.

Many years later, a very wise coach told me that you only control 50% of what takes place on the court. You can't control for what takes place on the other side of the net. Feeling a match slipping away and knowing that you can't dictate what transpires is incredibly frustrating. While smashing or throwing a racquet is well within your control, it'll have little influence on the final result of the match unless you get defaulted by an official who happens to see such abhorrent behavior. Very few players then proceed to play even better when they are angry. Keeping your negative emotions in check, let alone such unproductive actions as throwing a racquet, are the signs of a player maturing into a true sportsman. The anger and frustration of not being able to control the outcome of a single point, let alone a game, a set, or an entire match never quite goes away, especially if you're the kind of player who wants to dictate the rhythm and flow of a match. But being able to take control of your own reactions and behavior on the court is certainly a step in the right direction. As you can imagine, its' been quite a while now since I've last thrown a racquet on the tennis court.

Above: A newspaper clipping of author Jeffrey A. Greene as a younger player (left). This past Summer, Greene serving as Director of the Harrison, N.Y., Recreation Tennis Program is shown here with brothers Ashton and Aiden (middle) and their sister Amelia (right).


Jeffrey A. Greene was a college tennis coach for 20 years at six schools, was director of tennis at prestigious camps in New England for more than 20 years, and is in his 15th year as Director of the Harrison, N.Y., Recreation Tennis Program. He graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University and received a Masters in Sports Management & Administration at the University of Southern California. (Top Photo: Geometric Photography / Unsplash; Second Photo: Public Domain; Photo collage on bottom courtesy of Jeffrey A. Greene)

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