7 a.m. on the tennis court. Sweat in my eyes. I’m gasping for breath, but I don’t realize it. My arm feels heavy; it’s tired of swinging. My legs are tired of running. The crisp “tuk-tuk” of balls hitting the centre of other people’s rackets fills the air, but I am not aware of it. My mind is entirely focused on my ball. It swings tantalizingly in front of my hungry eyes, just inches from the tip of my searching racket. My body despairs, but my spirit won’t give up; goaded on by shouts of, “You can. You can!” from across the net.
The sun is just up, rubbing its eyes and yawning as it peeks into the crowded courts. There’s a cool, fresh breeze, pushing the grey monsoon clouds away and revealing patches of cerulean blue sky. Despite the sweat, the breeze takes my breath away as I stand by the sidelines, trying desperately to recover from the past five minutes’ exertion and prepare for the next round.
Most days, it’s not this… well, thrilling, for want of a better word. Most days, I get to rally with a marker, or with another player. If I’m lucky my opponent will be much better than me and will mostly be able to return my wild shots, so that I can concentrate on trying to improve my stroke.
But if I’m really lucky, I get to play with Tennis Sir. Sir is a master of his craft. When I watch him play with others, I can see sheer rhythm, sheer music in his movements. I’ve never seen him make an effort – every stroke is effortless, smooth as silk, gentle as a breeze. Of course he sometimes sends the ball into the net; of course he sometimes (rare though it may be) has to exert himself to reach a ball; of course he sometimes stands and watches a winner sail past him. But all said and done, he’s a master of his craft, and, to a beginner like me (and I’m not the only one), he’s practically god.
Sir must at some point have had a real opportunity to pursue competitive tennis. He must, I’m sure, have dreamt big – and perhaps he might have been able to make it to a certain level of recognition. But, for whatever reason, he never did make it. Now he coaches at a tennis court, teaching the basics to slow, lazy, middle-aged people like me.
What would you expect: Bitterness? Frustration? Remorse, at least? As far as the naked eye can see, Sir has no time for any of these. Of course, I cannot vouch for how he feels deep inside, but to all appearances he is the most comfortable, easy-going, cheerful self-assured and genuinely nice person you could ever have the good luck to run across, on a tennis court or off it.
Does he feel threatened by players who could potentially pose a challenge to him? I must say that I have not seen any such player, so I can’t say. But that does tell you a thing or two about his mastery over the game. Does he, perhaps, actively ensure that there’s nobody on his courts who can threaten his superiority? Not as far as I can see. He makes every effort to help Amit, who’s the best player on the court, to improve his game. And though I’ve never seen them play competitively, Amit tells me that Sir could defeat him 6-1 or 6-2 if he put his mind to it.
And yet, when he plays against me, or some of the other women and kids whom he coaches, he’s as gentle and considerate as can be. When he wants to be, that is. Other times, he’s merciless: he’ll make you sprint from end to end of the court like a ping-pong ball for five minutes at a stretch and never allow you to give up till you’re ready to drop – all the while shouting encouragement or throwing out good-natured challenges at you. He’s a naturally good teacher: offering encouragement, constructive criticism, and best of all, praise only when it is truly earned.
On one of our multiple public holidays earlier this year, the courts remained open. I asked Sir if he didn’t mind that there was no holiday for him when the rest of the city – or country – was on holiday. No, he said. When it rains, it is holiday for practically three months.
And yet, when the first showers came, even when parts of the court were water logged, he was there, doing what he could to provide dry courts to all who came. One weekend the courts were to be closed to players due to a tournament being held there later in the day. At the last moment, Sir declared that courts would remain open. Why? Well, he felt bad because we had all missed out on tennis for three days that week due to rain.
I have admired, even idolized Sir ever since the day I met him. But only today did something about him strike me more consciously than ever before: he’s happy because he’s doing what he loves, this much is obvious. But he’s also happy because he’s helping people do what they love. He’s not working with people at work; he’s working with people at play. He’s working with people who’re there because they want to be. He’s working with people who pay money to be there. He’s working with people who groan when it rains, because it means no tennis the next day; it means they can sleep late the next morning, instead of getting up at 5 a.m. to be at the courts at the crack of dawn. He may not be at Wimbledon, and he may not train anyone who makes it to Wimbledon either, but when his “team” brings that kind of commitment, enthusiasm, devotion to the court, when every single person is striving every single day to do the best they can, wouldn’t any boss be happy?
Come to think of it, I don’t know about that. But the point is, he’s not any boss – he’s Tennis Sir and he’s the best!