After 40 years, why I keep on playing
Jul 21, 2023
I'm heading to Naples Florida, on the clay at the Emilio Sanchez Tennis Academy, for my first tournament of the year in my new age group. I am once again, as I am every five years, the youngest in the group, this time the 75 and over. Wow. Forty years of competing in the sport that has made me better in so many parts of my life.
I am flashing back 40 years to my first tournament in senior tennis. Forty years ago this month I won a match on Long Island in the 35 and over. The beginning of my tennis competition journey. I remember how nervous I was. How worried about how I would be perceived as I entered a new world. Winning was all that I wanted.
The pressure I felt from myself made me so tight. Every muscle in my body was sore. After that first win, I wanted to tell everyone of my victory. I was desperate for external validation and, at that time, thought that winning would make me feel special.
Above: Bob Litwin shows up for his book signing at the US Open
Today, as I get ready to compete, I feel so different. I play for so many other reasons. Winning is now a preference, not a have to. Thank you to the legend, Jimmy Parker, for putting that into perspective for me.
I play, now, to train new ways of being into my life. To work on acceptance, to find a state of equanimity, to become freer from stress, to deepen my focus, to find flow more often, to appreciate adversity for the gifts it provides, to experience wonder and shoshin*. I play to continue improving for as I improve a part of me, I improve my whole being. A drop of water in the ocean affects the whole ocean. To continue to grow is a major focus of my life.
I go out to play and no longer feel nervous. I play hard and my body is barely sore. Results have been reduced to just a part of the game. I mostly keep my attention on the parts of the competitive experience — the quality of how I execute the pieces of a tennis match:
- Serving games: thoughtful selections; hitting my spots; changing speeds and spins.
- Return games: applying pressure; solving problems; attacking; defending; positioning.
- My baseline game: patience; movement; anticipation.
- The player/person I aspire to be: being fair; respecting my opponent; being forgiving of myself for my inability to be perfect; being a good winner and a good loser; accepting outcomes with dignity and class; taking risks. Having a complete experience. And always, for every match to be one in which I grow as a person.
*Shoshin is a concept from Zen Buddhism meaning beginner's mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying, even at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.
Bob Litwin won 27 US National Championships and 3 World Championships. He became an 11-time member of the Senior Davis Cup and was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 55s. He's also been recognized as National Senior Player of the Year. Litwin was the first non touring pro (and non college player) to be inducted into the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame whose member list includes Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Don Budge and others. Litwin's book, “Live the Best Story of Your Life: A World Champion’s Guide to Lasting Change,” was touted by Huffington Post as its No. 1 self-help read. Photos: Kirill Zharkiy / Unsplash; Bob Litwin / Facebook