Sunday, December 28, 2014

But is it tennis?

Yesterday I helped save a Russian baby from drowning. It was the case of being at the right place at the right time - in this instance inside of the pool right by the edge as this small child in a swim nappy and T-shirt confidently walked up to the water's edge and stepped in. At first I thought perhaps he was one of those toddler prodigy swimmers - the kinds you see on YouTube where they've been taught how to swim from birth. But as he almost immediately began to sink like a stone I reckoned it was just a case of over confidence on his part and being mesmerised by how inviting the water looked. I grabbed him by the arm and lifted him to the surface as his mother simultaneously rushed over and fished him out. She smacked him on the bottom and frog marched him back to their sun lounger. I was not acknowledged for my part in the rescue. I think she was in shock from what might have happened and maybe a little bit embarrassed that it had happened in the first place under her watch. Poor kid - I could tell his ego had been bruised.

The day before that I encountered Djokovic, his coach Boris Becker and the Ukrainian player Alexandr Dolgopolov training at the courts at the hotel we are staying in. After my own game, I sat on the bench by their court and watched them play for an hour or so and listened in on their conversation - the upcoming Australian open, racing fast cars, the usual stuff incredibly talented and rich young men talk about I suppose. It was genuinely fascinating watching how these world class players train: Both had their coaches on the courts who stood in the corners with tennis rackets and hit the balls that had gone amiss back in. Then there were two other men (similarly armed with rackets) and then there was a ball man probably provided by the hotel. So all in all seven people on the court at a given time.

Djokovic is tall and lean and handsome. He doesn't swear when he messes up a shot, not that there are many that he messes up, and he hits long, hard and just over the net. And interestingly his backhands are both single handed and double handed. Boris Becker was virtually unrecognisable. A lot of sports figures grow old gracefully and land up looking lean, fit and tanned and sort of handsome in an ageing Gary Player kind of way. Becker, after having  double hip surgery and more recently ankle surgery, kind of limps around and looks a lot older than his 47 years. I imagine the pain leading up to the surgery and then during recovery has a way of etching itself on your features. 

When I play tennis, and I use the term very loosely given present company in the previous paragraph, I am ill tempered and an incredibly sore loser. If, during my regular life, I try and maintain a sense of calm, on the courts all my inner rage is unleashed. My husband tries to make small talk or extend some affection and this is usually met with: "Don't touch me, don't even talk to me." And some balls are deliberately aimed at vulnerable parts of his body. People who don't know us from outside of this environment would wonder why anyone would want to be with such a vicious sore loser, not to mention the expletives that exit my mouth. 

A lot of this stems back to playing tennis with my sister when I was a child. My sister, who is two and a half years older than me, got private tennis lessons. I played a bit at school, but was never really that good at it. My sister took it very seriously, and we would sometimes play in our backyard on the paved driveway. She would be Christ Evert Lloyd (because she was the attractive one) and I had to be Martina Navratilova. Obviously Navratilova was a better player, but her mannishness didn't appeal to either of us. And because my sister was stronger, getting lessons, and a better player, she also always won. It did not bode well for our already shaky relationship.

I guess a lot of my present day tennis rage is a kind emotional flashback situation from those days; the almost psychotic competitive feelings I get the minute I step on the court never fail to surprise me. So when I turned 39 I decided to dispense with the frustration of never really knowing if I was just a bad player or maybe I just needed to learn how to play properly, and decided to get lessons. These days I get a lesson once a week with an incredibly nice and talented coach called Michael. Michael is almost stereotypically handsome; that is, when you think of a tennis pro you think of them as being tanned, lean, with slightly curly hair beneath the cap, and handsome. Michael is all of these. He tells me I am very tense on the court (he doesn't know about the flashback rage), I need to relax, and I need to play more in between lessons. My friend, who also trains with Michael, and I have decided to play once a week together, although this decision was made as the temperatures in London started to plummet to around 5 degrees. We decided to take it up again in March when things start to warm up. However this holiday a new friend gave me that rare as gold tip off as to the whereabouts of an indoor tennis court not too far from my house, so I can now play year round without risking pneumonia. 

Another decision I have made, in addition to improving my tennis game, is to lose weight. I was inspired by how lean Djokovic is. Now obviously it's insanity to compare oneself to a world class tennis player given he spends his life in training or playing in tournaments. But he also moved with such ease, and I don't. I am horribly unfit, or at least, too unfit to play as well as I would like. And the shorts of my skorts ride up because my thighs have gotten even wobblier than they were before. Also we had our Christmas family photo taken at lunch this year. I like comparative sorts of things and looked at the photo we had taken last year before realising that I can no longer fit into the dress I wore then, and haven't for quite some time.

I hate dieting. I find it boring and tedious and people who constantly talk about dieting are boring and tedious too. No one wants to hear about how many calories you consume or how many you managed to burn off  - it's genuinely of no interest to any one else, unless of course you are a member of an online forum or club that concerns itself with such things. Also it strikes me as slapping good fortune in the face when you think about how many people are struggling to put food on the table in the first place and there I might be saying: "Oh no, I think I'm going to have to give up on the daily de-caff soya lattes because that soya milk is not as fat free as you think!" First world problems and all that.

Anyway, a really good friend of mine who is amazing for many reasons, but mostly because she is the voice of reason in the face of my neurosis, said to me a few months back that people who regret becoming parents often do so because they see it as losing something rather than gaining it. We were talking about a couple of people we knew that had said something to the effect of: "I love my children, but if I knew then how much it would change my life, I don't think I would do it again." I think the same can be said for wanting to lose excess weight: If you see it as having to give up all the things you enjoy to attain it, it's probably going to be an awfully torturous, resentful, and ultimately unsustainable business. Whereas if you look at it as gaining better health, being fitter, feeling better emotionally, and an opportunity to buy some nice new (smaller) clothes, then maybe there's something to be gained by it.

"But we are intellectuals," I complain to my friend at dinner over sushi. "I mean -  I write, I paint, I concern myself with world events, what bloody difference does it make to what is going on in Syria if I am a size 8 as opposed to a size 10, er I mean 12?" This is how it always is with me and why I often sabotage my weight loss / get fit attempts - I veer between wanting to be leaner and thinking it's a case of pointless narcissism in the face of serious stuff. And I never, ever, talk about this kind of thing in front of my children because I don't want them equating their value or worth to their body shape. "Well", my friend replies calmly, "You are right, these things are not important in the context of what you mention, but personally I have a certain aesthetic and I enjoy feeling good about myself and being attractive to my husband too. Maybe that's not acceptable to some people but it's not about what other people think, it's about what is important to you."

Which leads me to today - I swam with the kids and a friend of ours that is also here on holiday looks over from his lounger and says: "Now there's a first!" And I was too embarrassed to tell him that I often wait until people I know are not around to swim with my kids because I am shy of how I look in a bathing suit. I'd rather he thought of me as an uninvolved parent than seeing all my wobbly bits. Which is a very sad admission on my part. I don't look at other people around the pool and judge how they look, and I was genuinely angry when years ago Cherie Blair was pictured on holiday and journalists, a couple of which were women! made fun of how voluptuous she looked in her bathing suit. As if she had committed some terrible crime by daring to wear a bathing suit and have fun with her children on what was a private holiday, just because she wasn't model thin. Heaven forbid she doesn't hate herself as we hate ourselves right?

It's true that sometimes I do look at exceptionally hairy men around the pool and then I tell my husband that they may in fact be werewolves and when there is a full moon he will have to fight them off. And he looks at me in that way he does (with long suffering love and affection and slight concern for my sanity) and says, "Uh-huh." Likewise on the aeroplane over to our holiday I show him this image of Sam Faiers and say: "Wow, now that's a great bikini body, don't you think?" and he points to a more curvy woman and says he prefers that look. Which is probably why he was attracted to me in the first place, because I am a lot curvier than the curvy woman he pointed to. God bless him and people like him. I wish I shared his aesthetic, but no matter how hard I try, Linda Hamilton's figure in Terminator II became an iconic 'how one should look' mental imprint for me at what was probably an important body image developmental age. And bizarrely, because I should know better, it remains the figure I aspire to and will probably never achieve. I guess it could be worse, it could have been Barbie I wanted to look like, and then, like the very thin Russian woman who is also poolside, I might have to have my lower ribs removed.


I'm going to start on cutting out the wine during the week, go easy on the carbs at night, and in addition to tennis, try and get 20 minutes of cardio in a few times a week. That doesn't sound too bad, does it?  And on days that I fail to do any of the above and partake in my 4pm tea, biscuit and stroking the cat ritual, I must remind myself of the following: That  it may not be peace in the Middle East, but somewhere in the world there is a small Russian baby with delusions of swimming grandeur, that is still alive in part, thanks to me. Even if I did execute said rescue with my wobbly bits on public display.

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