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Cambridge Tennis Club, which becomes Cambridge Skating Club in winter

We were supposed to play at the most wonderful Cambridge Tennis Club, where the clubhouse smells like an old-fashiony cabin, but unexpectedly, 2 inches of rain fell overnight and the court my friend had reserved was the one that takes longest to dry. So our other friend invited us to a private court nearby, owned by a kind family who don't play, but want it to be enjoyed. On the Boston border, this oasis made us imagine we were at a Hawaiian resort, with a killer pool surrounded by big moss covered rocks, beautiful gardens and a dry court with flowering trumpet vine along one side, bamboo and huge urns of red, pink and orange shade begonias on the other.

Trumpet vine

Dry court

Fuzzy picture of pool, rocks and house behind

I played with a woman I know slightly, someone as nice as they come; thoughtful, warm, only ever positive with a beautiful and resident smile. When trying to convince me that she was indeed competitive, she mentioned that during a league match, when her opponents made a bad call, she immediately said "Are you sure?" If you're not a women's league tennis player, you might not understand that there can be a lot behind that question, and under many conditions, them's fighting words. When we played, the most aggressive she got was a couple of down the line passing shots, but even those seemed somehow apologetic. At lunch, her husband confirmed that she is indeed competitive, which still seemed hard to comprehend. I mentioned I wasn't, and one of the other women who knew me disagreed, which led to some re-examination and this post.

Here is what Oxford Dictionary has to say about the word competitive: "having or displaying a strong desire to be more successful than others".

What comes to my mind with the word competitive is someone who will win at any cost, who would prefer to hit a rim shot that dribbles over the net, than a most perfect backhand an inch out. People whose eyes too often deceive them at the baseline, who use the USTA rules as ammunition, not scaffolding, who see the people on the other side of the net as the enemy.

Since beginning tennis in my early teens, I never focused on winning, or "being more successful than others". It wasn't the tournament trophy I got, instead the one for sportsmanship, which at the time felt like the equivalent of a participation trophy. Now, I think of myself as playing for the joy of the game, exercise and sociability, as well as trying as hard as I can. I'm internally competitive, pushing myself to have a quiet mind, do better, reach further, master, keep trying. The best games are when I have that feeling of flow, having worked on something long enough that it just happens without my thinking about it.

Definitely disappointed as my friend whom I could usually beat when we played informally grabbed the win

Playing a paddle tournament in Longmeadow a few years back, surrounded by tall oak trees, a snow-covered golf course and some crows, I had a funny vision of an alien or someone from a third world country seeing these four misguided women stuck in a cage, chasing a ball with glorified sticks, upset when the ball didn't go where intended. We have lost our minds, I thought. This reinforced the lack of importance I placed on winning.

But here's something that makes me question my focus on enjoyment. I play with someone who is not only a gifted athlete and fair, honest and a fun person to play with, but also focused on (and successful at) winning. Never a bad call or an inappropriate word, but she's down to business, moving forward towards a victory, staying cool and even, rarely making mistakes, and if she does, forgetting them. When I think about her, I realize there's something primal about winning as she does, something that has to do with never falling apart. It's the equivalent of not panicking when one's ship is going down, doing what needs to be done with a clear head, saving lives without jumping in to shark-infested waters, or pushing children out of the way in order to get in the first lifeboat. We all want and need to be that person.

A few minutes ago while I was formulating this, I heard from a friend. She had applied for a job that was a stretch but she was ready for. The process had taken too many months, with poor communication, false starts and stops, optimism, disappointments, but for her, always a commitment as she studied up, asked good questions, challenged herself and the company she was interviewing with. In her text, she let me know that while it was really close between her and another, she didn't get the job, and is experiencing the raw disappointment of doing everything she could to get something she wanted really badly, then feeling that searing and painful let down. I looked up to her bravery, she had done the equivalent of what I realized I was uncomfortable with in competition - putting it all on the line.

So, I'm not sure what my friend meant when she said I was competitive, and I will surely ask her next time we're together, but it prompted me to understand that perhaps while I know I’ll never waver into the land of iffy line calls, perhaps I'm not willing to try harder to win because I'm not sure I have the discipline, confidence or nerves of steel that some do. On the other hand, my mastering and enjoyment of racquet sports has brought so much joy. I suppose, as the dictionary states, it's all about being more successful, and that may be up to each individual.TBD.


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