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Unfinished Business – From being an athlete to guiding one

You’re alone on the road in the middle of nowhere and just lost in a third set tiebreak. You head back to the hotel to pack your bags and book an early flight home the next morning. Is it worth it? Do you belong out there? What are you doing with your life? How much longer are you going to play? Every week brings a new set of challenges, and there are times I find myself staring deeply into the mirror asking these exact questions. Welcome to the life of a tennis player.

I still remember the sound of my alarm at 4:30 in the morning. I would often joke around that my mom sends me off at night because it used to be pitch dark when I left for tennis practice. It almost felt like I was sneaking out of my house at 5 am since I did not want to wake anyone up. Such was life – starting my day at 5 in the morning and ending it at 8 in the evening. I was introduced to the game by my father and as far as I can remember, tennis has been a BIG part of my life since. I was laser-focused on the sole goal of becoming a professional tennis player and grew up idolizing players like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova (oh that grunt!). Becoming something or someone else never really crossed my mind. I credit that to my parents who taught me never to play safe, giving me confidence in the life decisions I make.

Being an athlete and a full-time student was never an easy task. My parents often ensured that I have the best of both worlds. Rather, I would say I became a much better student once I started spending more time on the court, it felt like I got all my education there. I would travel for almost 2 weeks a month to different countries and cities. I remember finishing my match at around 3 pm and then spending the rest of the day studying for an upcoming board exam. However, I would never trade or give up my time on tour for anything. I can confidently say that those were the best times of my life, away from the worries of the world – just playing and studying.

Soon, an important time of planning on what to do after grade 12 came around. For a lot of families, especially in India, this is one of the biggest decisions of their lives. There would be many discussions among friends, families, and relatives on whether the entire family was going to college together. This was not the case for us. My father was very clear I had 2 options: drop out of college and pursue tennis full-time, or get into the best college in the country. As a sports person, you like nothing better than a challenge. Having said that, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend college, but I definitely wanted to win the challenge of getting into the best school. Just like that, I got myself admitted into one of the countries’ most prestigious institutions, St. Stephens College. I found myself at a crossroads of giving everything up and taking the risk of going all out with tennis or choosing to attend an academic institution and juggling both tennis and academics. I felt like that man in the grade 9 Robert Frost poem I studied, “The Road Not Taken”

I finally caved in and found myself in a completely different environment. I won’t lie, it was a completely life-changing experience. It was an academically challenging environment and I was among the toppers/nerds in the country, something I had never imagined. But, I chose to stick to my basics and play to my strengths. As a tennis player, I had learned the value of hard work and time management, which was what I applied to manage the academic pressure I initially felt. I missed symposiums, concerts, farewells, and even did not participate in different societies as I juggled tennis practice and classes. I wanted the best of both worlds – to be the best tennis player and student, I genuinely felt I could not attain it in an environment that was not aligned with each other.

But life had other plans, and being in that environment introduced me to a different side of myself and opened new possibilities. I often wondered what would have happened if I had chosen to pursue tennis full-time. Would I have had a different outcome, or would there be a better opportunity out there which I never got to explore? Who knows!

I often wonder what the purpose of my experience in the past years was for – weighing my options, juggling roles… Right now, I am lucky enough to have found a platform where I have the challenge to do something new (counseling), and guiding young athletes in the pursuit of their dreams. I realize that being a counselor was my calling not just because I get to interact with athletes and families, but also because my experience from similar situations would be helpful for these athletes as they are navigating through their options. Today, nothing feels better than when I hear athletes telling me how grateful they are for access to the right information they need in making an informed decision for their future. It was something I personally never had when I needed to make mine, and now that the information is at my disposal, I am honored to be able to help them in the process. I picture myself from many years ago to be in their shoes, and what a joy it is to be able to guide them as I would have loved to be as well. Counseling truly is an affirmation that I am on the right path and that every happening in my life prior has served to help me be a better counselor. I may not be a professional tennis player today, but as they say, it’s not over unless you want it to be. As I look back and contemplate the relevance of long hours and sacrifices I had to make to become an athlete years ago, I realized I never actually played to attain money or recognition, but for the love of the game. Being on the court made me feel accomplished; but more than that, it taught me how to be a better counselor today, and I could never imagine my life anyway else.

Sanya Madan Associate Consultant