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(Updated to honor the 2019 semi-final between Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal)
Whenever I watch tennis — especially great tennis like at Wimbledon — I always think about how much tennis has taught me about writing.
I grew up in a “tennis family” — we watched and played tennis my entire life. I’ve taken thousands of lessons, competed in tournaments (even won a trophy or two), and watched hours and hours of professional tennis on TV and in person. I’ve been to the US Open and Wimbledon, too. Tennis is in my bones.
But until this year, I hadn’t thought about how the fundamentals of tennis have been absorbed into my writing. In many ways, I learned to tell a good story on the tennis court.
Here are a few things tennis has taught me about writing:
- The Ace. Great tennis players win easy points by throwing in an ace. As a writer, find your own ace — that thing that no other writer can touch. It may be your idea, your love of metaphor, your gift for dialogue, or just your tenacity. Whatever it is, find it and hone it. At the end of your story, readers will still be talking about that one untouchable moment…
- But you also have to mix it up. When I played, my best shot was a hard, flat forehand up the line, but if I hit that shot every time, my opponent would anticipate it, run over, and hit a winner. Great players mix it up — they hit top spin, slice, down-the-line, cross court — then when they hit that one great shot, their opponent has no hope of anticipating it. You have to keep your opponent guessing. Same with writing — don’t pull out your favorite trick on every page or else your reader will start to anticipate and get bored. Throw in new sentence structure, an unexpected plot twist, a strange new character… A surprised reader is an engaged reader:
Expectation + Violation of Expectation = Surprise
- Throw in a drop shot. A drop-shot forces your opponent into a spot where you think you can pass her. You can’t use it often, but used sparingly it can be very effective. In writing, this is equivalent to luring your reader into an emotionally vulnerable place and then dropping a well-timed bomb so suddenly, they are crying, screaming, or laughing. Beware: This can come off as manipulative if used too often. You don’t want your readers to feel jerked around. But readers want to feel something when they read. So don’t be afraid to lure them in close — get them into a vulnerable spot — and then hit them with a great plot twist that leaves them reeling.
- Don’t hit it into the net. Basic right? Hit the ball as HIGH as you want — ten, fifteen, thirty feet into the air — just don’t hit it down into that 3 1/2 foot tall net. This is something tennis taught me about writing AND life: always aim HIGHER than you think you need. In your writing, aim for a better idea, better characters, better sentences… If you don’t aim high enough, you don’t make it over the net and the point is over. At least if you get it over the net, you’re still in the game.
- Play within the lines. In tennis, you can hit a brilliant cross-court screamer that your opponent has no chance of touching, but if it’s out… it’s out. You lose the point. A lot of new writers try to do something “new” or “inventive,” but if that “brilliance” falls outside the lines, it doesn’t count. What are the “lines” in writing, you ask… CLARITY. You can write a great sentence, a beautiful metaphor, a poetic turn of phrase… but if those words confuse the reader, they don’t count. That brilliance becomes a point LOST, not gained. Don’t try anything fancy until you learn to write with clarity.
- One winner, one loser. A lot of sports teach this lesson, but tennis boils it down, mano e mano. Want an easy way to keep your audience engaged? Set up a simple conflict like a tennis match — two people, on opposite sides, battling it out for a single prize. One will win. One will lose. Your reader won’t be able to put your story down.
- Small losses on the way to victory. Tennis is made up of individual points, games, sets, matches — all on the way to crowning a winner at end of the champion. Part of what makes tennis so compelling is that, along the way, everyone loses. The ultimate winner isn’t always victorious; in fact, the most exciting matches feature one player hopelessly behind, and then coming back to win it all in the end. When you write, let your characters have lots of mini-losses AND mini-victories along the way… It makes for a better story.
- High stakes. In any tennis tournament, there’s a trophy, but part of what makes Wimbledon so exciting is it’s the BIGGEST crown in all of tennis. Every tennis-playing kid dreams of winning on the grass of Centre Court. In your stories, turn up the stakes — if possible, all the way up to Wimbledon.
- Grind it out. Sometimes pure talent wins on court… but more often than not, it’s the players who work the hardest who win. They train hard off the court. They run for every ball. They keep fighting even when they’re down two sets and a break. Yes, sometimes talented writers hit it big, too — but usually it’s the writers who keep working and never give up who come out on top.
On the topic of grinding it out, I still remember one match…
I was a Senior in High School, in the semi’s of my team’s All-Region tournament. Only the two finalists would go onto State — I had to win this match to move on. I was facing down the number one seed — I’d played her many times, but I’d never beaten her. I’d never even taken a set off of her.
That day, I was playing well. We were tied one set all, and I was up a break in the third. My opponent was getting down on herself. Her confidence was fading. The victory seemed on the edge of my racket…
But it was a really hot summer day in Arkansas, and I was starting to feel sick. After one tough point — I’d sprinted up to the net to grab a drop shot and hit a winner — I felt dizzy… And then I threw up at the back of the court. My opponent saw me. She knew I was weak. Her confidence came back. She started running me… She broke back. We were even in the third. I thought it was over.
Then, one of my teammates showed up in the stands. She called down to me, “Steph! I just won my match! If you win, it’s an all Lakeside final!”
That was the day I learned to “dig deep.” I looked at my opponent across the net and decided she was not going to win. Not today. I wasn’t going to let a little heat and vomit stop me.
I’m proud to say, I won that match 6-4 in the third. I went onto the final (where, exhausted, I lost to my teammate), but we both went on to compete at State.
Over twenty years later, I still apply that lesson every day. I look across my desk and no matter how tired I am, I do what must be done. I write. I work. I never give up… And this year, all of that fight finally paid off with a publishing deal.
And I still credit that day on the tennis court, when I learned how to never give up.