For many years, I've been inspired by some of the stories on both the ATP and WTA tours. Players like Tommy Haas, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Brian Baker are players who remind us that great difficulties--from big injuries and illness to being dismissed as "not a contender"--can be overcome.
On the WTA tour, there have been, and still are many, inspiring women. Billie Jean King risked her entire career, and lost several so-called ATP friendships, when she led the movement that established the WTA. Martina Navratilova defected from her country, thought she would never see her family again, and lived in fear for many years. Jennifer Capriati, whose time had supposedly "passed," returned to the tour after experiencing some rough adolescent years, and won three majors.
Jana Novotna inspired by overcoming what some consider the biggest choke of all time, and winning Wimbledon. Kim Clijsters' body was so beaten up by tennis, she retired, had a baby, then gave it another go. In her second career, Clijsters won three majors.
Jelena Dokic inspired simply by pushing her way through a wall of abuse and horror, and emerging with grace and dignity. And then there was Monica Seles, who lived in a hell created by a number of factors, including lax security. Seles, after being stabbed while playing in a match, came back two years later and won the Australian Open.
If you're looking for inspiration, it's still there. It's there in the form of Li Na, who Ieft the tour for a couple of years, then returned and faced down her country's tradition of controlling athletes' professional lives and denying them much of their prize money. She changed Chinese tennis forever. Li then sustained a number of serious injuries, only to bound back at an "advanced" age and win the French Open and to become a two-time Australian Open finalist. She also became one of the sport's most beloved figures because of her candor and delicious sense of humor.
It's there in the form of Venus Williams, who suffered for seven years from an undiagnosed illness (which, by the way, even though I'm a mental health professional, I could have diagnosed with relative ease--her symptoms were textbook obvious). A series of doctors told Williams everything from "it's a mystery" to "it's in your head." She was so tired, she could hardly play, but she kept going, and had, she said, "only my will" to allow her to carry on. Williams finally received appropriate treatment, and is back on the tour, doing well, and winning big doubles titles.
I know we like to give Sam Stosur a hard time, but she, too, was smacked down with a double illness, suffered extreme fatigue for a long time, but came back to reach the final of the French Open, and eventually, to win the U.S. Open.
Let's not forget Maria Sharapova, whose doctors somehow failed to notice a tear in her rotator cuff. Sharapova continued to play, which did more damage to her shoulder. She had surgery, went through rehab, then had to go through rehab a second time. She returned to the tour with reduced confidence and all kinds of problems with her serve, which had been such a great strength before she was injured.
We kept hearing that "no one" is ever the same again after rotator cuff surgery, and that the Russian's great days were over, but Sharapova went on to complete a Career Slam when she won the French Open in 2012. Sharapova, it turns out, is "someone," but some of us already knew that.
Flavia Pennetta, one of the great Fighting Italians, decided to pay a surprise visit to her then-fiance several years ago, only she was the one who got the surprise. She found him with another woman, and eventually turned her very public emotional pain into a very strong will to compete at the highest level she could. And despite having several injuries, Pennetta's life lesson helped to make an already impressive career even greater.
Pennetta's friend, Francesca Schiavone, used to get to finals and then lose them. She did this over and over. But in 2010, when her opponent was considered a "lock" (well, not by all of us) to win the French Open, Schiavone--now armed with total belief in herself--took home La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in what I think may have been the greatest ending to a French Open of all time.
We don't have to go very far back for inspiration: there's Vika Azarenka's 2013 Australian Open victory. Works for me.
Still looking for inspiration? Gentle Reader, I give you Serena Williams. Williams has had to put up with a barrage of racist and sexist insults hurled at her for years, as well as constant accusations that she "must be" a doper. Her biggest challenge, however, came in 2010 when a bottle thrown by a drunken football fan cut her foot and she had to have surgery. What followed was a second surgery, and then a hematoma, Williams developed a pulmonary embolism and could have very well died. She was off of the tour for months, and she wasn't young anymore (in tennis terms).
Her response? She returned to the tour and not-so-slowly got back her form. In the second half of 2012, she did what no one had ever done before: She won Wimbledon, an Olympic gold medal (two, actually--she and Venus won doubles gold), the U.S. Open, and the WTA Championships--just like that. Anyone who pulled that off would be an extraordinary tennis professional, but Williams did it after going through a physical and mental challenge that might have taken the bite out of many other players, and caused them to retire from the sport.
Well, you might be thinking, if I had their money, I might have more strength and courage, too. People with money can get a lot more help. Yes--and no. For all of her wealth, Venus Williams couldn't find a doctor who knew anything about autoimmune disease. Maria Sharapova's "expert" doctors couldn't diagnose a serious rotator cuff tear. Money helps, to be sure, but it can't buy inner strength, it can't buy courage, it can't buy belief. Apparently, it can't even buy competent medical help.
I think that we like to watch tennis because it's such a complex and beautiful game. But I think we also like to watch it because it's an individual sport, and each player must ultimately be in charge of herself. An individual sport like tennis provides every imaginable metaphor for the challenges of living that affect you and me the same as they affect a Serena Williams or a Maria Sharapova. We all lose belief, we all want to give up, we all think we aren't good enough. Venus and Serena, Flavia and Francesca, Vika and Maria, Sam Stosur, Big Sister Na....they are star athletes, yes, but they are also teachers.
We may not connect our feelings of determination to the memory of seeing Maria Sharapova's joy over winning the French Open. We may not ask "What would Serena do?" But we are influenced by the strength of these athletes. And so we, too, become teachers.