This month I celebrate a landmark birthday: I’ve finally decided to grab it by the horns and admit, yes… I’m turning 50. I used to dread the approach of this sort of “George Clooney” age, but at 50, I find I am reflective, calm and sort of grinning a bit to myself. I feel I want to try and channel my younger-kid self. What would I have to say to that kid now? What’s the real connection between the two of us? I guess people who have children might be able to have this reflection frequently, but it’s just dawned on me to wonder if that kid is still in me.
This all happened watching Wimbledon this year, with the incredible comeback stories of ageing champions – Serena, Rafa, Novak and of course Roger, giants of the court who defy age, coming back from injury and adversity. I was just in awe of them.
Most people might know me for my career path in luxury and fashion, but my first love and passion was tennis. And now I wonder what happened to that kid who lived, ate, breathed and dreamed tennis? Where did he go? Was it really a game to “love” (ie, “nothing” in tennis)?
I hosted a childhood friend recently who visited Hong Kong with his grown-up daughter after being away nearly 20 years, and all he could say to her was what an incredible tennis prodigy I was. It was nice to be remembered that way, but I was embarrassed, as I don’t think I’ve set foot on a tennis court in years. I realised that I was great at kidding myself and giving myself all sorts of reasons (excuses) not to play all these years. “It’s too hot/I’m too busy to commit to time with a tennis buddy/I have a slipped disc injury from 2006 and am still recovering s-l-o-w-l-y …” And so on.
But watching Wimbledon this year, this tennis fix kind of freaked me out as I realised that tennis is much more than a game. It was more than a passing childhood phase for me – it had been so important during some of my formative years, something I loved at a young age, something that I dreamed of doing for the rest of my life … how had it become a spectator sport for me in recent decades?
When I was 12 I threw myself into the sport. I trained daily at 5.30am when I was at school in Canada, and I’d easily play five hours a day during my summer breaks at the Hong Kong Country Club. I played tournaments year after year, but never “broke through” as a player until I was about 16 and started winning tournaments. I was beating players older and bigger than me, I began beating players I wasn’t supposed to beat, and I earned my best ranking ever, in the top 10 of the under-18 category at age 16. That was a truly incredible year, but in the next two years I crumpled.
From the smaller kid not expected to win, I was a top seed at every tournament. The pressure was on and after a few years of winning most of the time, during my final year as a junior I was losing and tanking. The pressure was too much, I thought I’d never get a college scholarship, let alone be a professional player, and I gave it up. I turned 19, no longer a junior, and I felt washed up – I felt like I was 50!
I’m grinning now as I write about this eureka moment, and I’m also grinning as I connect with the younger me … it’s perhaps too personal to express more, but I realise I just need to get back on the court and hit a ball. In the end, that’s the joy of tennis, isn’t it? Stop playing against yourself and just hit the ball.
Who wants to have a hit?