My first love was a serious tennis player, and I supported him in his passion.
However, our relationship left me with PTSD, and I was unable to watch the sport for 16 years.
Last week, watching Serena Williams in the US Open helped bring back my love of the game.
I was 19 when Serena Williams won her first US Open in 1999 when she was just 17 years old. At the time, I was two years into my first big romance, deeply in love with my high-school sweetheart and filled with the kind of naivete that comes with youth and little life experience. Though our relationship continued for eight more years, it peaked early on — and with its high highs, there were some extreme lows.
When we finally broke up when I was 25, I felt free. However, my relationship with the game of tennis was collateral damage. It became a trigger, and I never watched — or played — the sport again. Last week, however, on the final night of August, Serena's unexpected, impassioned win — after what was supposed to be her final match — drew me back in. For the first time in 16 years, I tuned in to watch the US Open.
Tennis and our relationship were woven together like strings on a racket
He was my everything, and tennis was his. He was a fantastic player whose life revolved around the sport; he excelled on the high-school team and earned a college scholarship, after which he almost went pro. During our relationship, tennis became part of my life, too. I'd cheer from the sidelines at his matches, fighting over the role of biggest fan with his manager-style mother. I took trains and trams, traveled far distances — mostly alone — just to watch him swing that racket. It was magical to see.
But his veracity for tennis bled over into our relationship, finding its release through other outlets. There were emotional outbursts, yelling, and other toxic behaviors, the impact of which I wouldn't comprehend until years later. In high school, the principal once called us "fire and fire," adding that we seemed destined for failure. At the time, I thought nothing of the remark — I thought that it was just commentary on the passion that was inherent in our relationship — but now I see it for what it was: a warning.
Entering the world of tennis — his world — was like being a spectator to a slightly more-civilized gladiator ring. All the typical stereotypes of tennis players were profoundly on display at his practices and matches: young men seething with competitiveness, intensity, unresolved anger, and big egos. My ex was one of them and displayed many of these tendencies not only on the court, but off of it, as well. Yes, he'd throw his racket during the game, like many other players have. Other times, he'd punch a wall during a fight with that same furor.
During our senior year of high school, our love felt the most blissful, but under the surface teenage jealousy seethed and patterns of verbal abuse formed alongside that bliss. I began to normalize these actions and accept the way he treated me as something I deserved. Public fights and verbal disagreements between us littered the last two years of high school.
Our time together in college was even more tumultuous. I was desperately vying for his attention over both university-team tennis and new women. When he wasn't ignoring me, I was fending off the jealous aggression that came with any effort to explore my own independence.
One time I ran into him at a bar when he was supposedly home sick — for once, instead of being his apologist, I went to another party. He somehow hunted me down, found me, and forcibly dragged me out of the party while my friends watched in disbelief.
Through all of it, tennis remained part of the fabric that kept our worn-out story held together — my support of him never wavered and he always seemed to crave it, despite rarely acknowledging it. On occasion we'd play together, though it usually ended with me in tears.
After college, we were together for three more years, but by the end, there was nothing left. I rarely even saw him at that point, and the heyday of our high-school lives was long gone. When we broke up, he called me incessantly, and I admit that I didn't hate it at first. It made me feel wanted. But as soon as I'd answer, the feeling that he needed me immediately stopped, and so did the calls. It was more about power than love.
When I finally realized the traumatic game I'd become an unwilling participant in, we finally ended our communication completely. Around this time, I also realized that I'd never learned how to separate the feelings I had about him from my feelings about tennis.
Serena's love of the game helped me remember why I loved it, too
PTSD had developed as a result of my relationship and kept me distanced from the sport all these years. Tennis and what I had been through were intertwined, and since our breakup, hearing the swish of a racket or the thump of a ball on the court fiercely conjured up bad memories. Even the word "love" said in the wrong context could give me chills.
But Serena's shocking defeat of No.2 player Anett Kontaveit on the night of Wednesday, August 31, captivated me. I felt a rush of joy for the game return, the kind I'd had before the darkness of my romance tarnished my experience with it. Seeing her play this way sparked an interest in tennis I hadn't felt in almost two decades.
I was no longer thinking about the times I was chastised for not loving tennis enough, or punished for asking too much from my boyfriend — after all, his devotion to his skill came first, a nonnegotiable I'd sadly accepted. Watching Serena last week, something new happened. I wasn't flooded with bad memories. Every other time I'd tried to watch tennis in recent years, something as simple as the distinct sound of players' shoes shuffling across the court had come to make me cringe, but seeing her on the court finally reignited the excitement I used to feel.
Friday night, Serena Williams played her heart out against her unseeded Australian opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, in what was her longest match ever played. Though Tomljanovic ultimately came out on top, Serena was the clear star.
Watching her embody spirit and strength on that screen, I'm a different woman than I was when I first watched Serena on the court: happily married, not to my first love, but my true one. As a freelance writer still finding my voice's full potential and struggling to become a mom, these themes of perseverance and never being too old are resonating deeply.
Serena's passion throughout the last week has been an inspiration, and an important reminder to strive for the things in life you desire most. Despite my hardships and self-doubt, I too can overcome them — because you never know when you're going to have that unexpected success.
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