What tennis season means to me

What tennis season means to me

By Clare Sultmann

Christmas may be my most favourite time of the year, but tennis season in Australia which follows just after, is a close second.


Some of the greatest life lessons I’ve learned have come from the tennis courts. Competitive sport gives you a work ethic, provides comradery, teaches you tenacity, discipline, self-respect and perhaps, most importantly, resilience.


In my case, it was resilience that was my greatest lesson and at the time I didn’t even know it. It took years and years (and a catastrophic accident) for me to work that one out.


My mind wanders back. Something that I let it do now, more so than ever before.


It’s December in Brisbane in the late 1980’s.  That time when all the schools are on holidays, kids are everywhere- outside (there are no technologies that can keep us indoors) excitement in the air is palpable and Christmas only days away. For me this time of year always means playing in the local tennis tournament. On the courts at the local state high school is where I find myself today. It’s midday and HOT. The sun coming off the bitumen court making it even more oppressive than the temperature would read. There is no shade on this court and I look up enviously to the large tree that provides the only shade that can be seen and I nod nervously to my parents who are sitting beneath it, waiting for my match to begin.


I’m 11 years old and the best female player for my age in our area. I’ve been put in the boys draw for this tournament. It usually happens. The organisers of the tournament think that I would face more competition playing against boys and so an exception is made and I am, today, as I have all week, facing a boy on the other side of the net.


As I look across at my opponent in our warm up the words of my mother echo loudly and her exasperated tone is ringing in my ears: ‘Clare, when you go to shake a boys hand at the end of the match can you please not wipe you hand straight away on your skirt. It’s embarrassing for me when I am talking to the boy’s parents. They don’t have germs’. ‘Yes they do mum, boy germs’ I reply.


The game is uneventful until about halfway through when I roll my ankle. I fall the wrong way on the hard surface and for some reason am having trouble getting up. My chivalrous opponent jumps the net and runs over to help me up (perhaps I won’t wipe my hand after I shake his).  I stumble off the court and make it, with his help to the shady tree where my parents are sitting. My opponent’s father is the local doctor and he takes a look at my ankle. It’s not broken, just some swelling and a slight sprain. I can still walk on it, although not well and ice taken from my water bottle is helping to ease the swelling. My first tennis coach, Robyn Vincenzi walks over to me and sits down. Robyn is a legend and most people don’t’ realise how famous she once was. She was formerly Robyn Ebbern, a three-time grand slam winner in doubles with Margaret Court, who, along with Serena Williams and Steffi Graf, are arguably the greatest of all time. I’ve had the privilege of calling Robyn my coach for a number of months and I am always eager to hear what she says, now more so than ever.  ‘Clare, do you think you continue to play or do you want to forfeit?’ I look up at mum and dad, then down at my swollen ankle and bite my lip. ‘I’m not sure’ I say to her, taking it all in. How nice would it be to quit, to sit under the shade of this tree and rest? The easiest option is to give up, give in. Yet I’ve never forfeited a match and I really don’t want to start now.  I know that if I go back on the court I won’t be playing at full capacity. I’ll be playing with an injury and I know I probably won’t win.


Sensing my dilemma Robyn pipes up with these words: ‘Clare, it’s up to you. You can forfeit the match now and no-one will think anything of it. You have a perfectly good reason not to continue playing on. Or you can get up, finish the match and see how you go’. She pauses and then looking straight at me says: ‘But what you decide to do now will make all the difference’. I look at her, and with an 11-year-olds understanding kind of get what she says. I nod to mum and dad and I say. ‘Lets continue. I’ll play the match out’. And so I do. I put everything into it, as much as I can anyway and I lose. Yet I get up and I finish the match. 


I think nothing of that conversation for years after. But now I do. Now, as an adult, after having had to dig deep, overcome the greatest of adversities and find resilience from the depths of my despair Robyn’s words haunt me: ‘What you decide to do now will make all the difference’. And she was right. It’s no longer about a tennis match, a tennis lesson. It’s a life lesson. What mattered most and will always matter is that you get up when it would be easier to stay down. A life lesson, which I would call on years later when I needed it most.


So the tennis season for me is more than just watching tennis. It’s about memories, about a time long ago. It’s about a sport that I will always love yet can no longer play. It’s about a life lesson which I will never forget and which has taught me much.


Clare Sultmann

Clare Sultmann is a wife, mother of 3 and the founder of Dear Molly.
As a survivor of a catastrophic accident, former barrister at law, published author, and nationally accredited mediator Clare has returned to work in a different capacity. Relocating to Noosa shortly after the birth of her first child, Clare found it difficult to make meaningful and real connections with other like-minded women away from her own network of friends. With this in mind, Clare’s idea was born. Dear Molly aims to provide connections for like-minded women in a real, meaningful and positive manner. It a platform to share, communicate and inspire other women about their ‘real’ life.


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