NEW YORK – The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) and the United States Tennis Writers’ Association (USTWA) announced the 2010 winners of their annual writing contest, and recent Columbia women’s tennis alum, Carling Donovan ‘10CC, took second place overall with her essay, entitled "Tennis vs. Everything Else."
The competition consisted of two separate nationwide contests, one eligible for Sports Information Directors and one available for students currently enrolled in a college or university. The top three articles chosen in each contest received cash prizes, an awards certificate and the opportunity to be featured on www.itatennis.com and www.USTWA.org.
A complete list of winners is available here.
Tennis vs. Everything Else
By Carling Donovan ‘10CC
They were half right. As I looked out on the mass of faces, all were heavily shadowed from below, topped with a fluorescent brightness that rendered them close to indistinguishable. But they were there: I could see bodies, I could make out pairs of eyes glued to the podium spotlight just a few feet away from where I stood—but still close enough that when I covertly glanced up at the scoreboard screen, I could see a digitalized version of myself. My dreaded nightmare of appearing on the Jumbotron at various sporting events, ranging from the Kiss Cam (what if I was sitting next to my brother?) to the Fans of the Game shot at any venue, was becoming a reality. I never knew what my gut reaction would be in such a state of exposure: would I jump and wave ecstatically, or cover my face in awkward embarrassment? In those moments of unexpected and anxiety- ridden showcase, how would I perform?
They were half right when they told me I wouldn't be able to see the crowd of close to 1,000 people who would be focusing their attention solely on me. Yet, I could still see them, but I wasn't blinded, which was a positive considering I wouldn't just be standing there. Sure, I was just standing there now, which in itself presented numerous other concerns: how did I hold my hands? What should I do with these pieces of paper? Should I look at my fellow speaker, who was breaking the ice and going first? Did I look bored, excited, nervous, terrified? How does my hair look? I spent enough time perfecting it in my room for the past hour, but the ominous storm clouds rolling in minutes before I entered the gym meant that deadly humidity was imminent. Also, I couldn't tell from the hopefully inconspicuous quick study of myself on the scoreboard screen, but something told me the bloated appearance of my face when I woke up that morning was mostly hormonal and not psychological. I hoped I wasn't shiny, that the quick bronzer my makeup-artist-for-the-day friend brushed on hid any signs that I was on the verge of pouring sweat. I looked again at Clay, giving his speech and gripping the sides of the podium in a gesture of nervousness, which conversely projected an image of cool, calm, and confidence. Yet, I didn't think I could pull off that same positioning: somehow that image of cool would be transformed into an image of instability and distress. Sort of like how I had to cross my legs while sitting on stage: I needed to be more ladylike, less aggressive athlete.
But wasn't aggressive athlete what had earned me this position in the first place? Weren't the Columbia Athletic core traits of accountability, respect, inclusiveness, commitment, integrity, and excellence what I exemplified, and thus got me elected? I wasn't too sure about that—I think I got nominated because I had more than a few friends and teammates on the Student Athletic Advisory Committee—but it was ironic that my athletic abilities were not what were on display that night. Instead of gripping a racquet, stutter-stepping in my sneakers, and grunting to release tension during a shot, I was standing before a crowd of my peers, coaches, and alumni, gripping my typed speech, praying that my calves didn't cramp while standing in those four inch heels, and attempting to remain as still as possible without appearing frozen. When I would feel the anxiety coming on, and remember that all of my fellow athletes would be staring at me, watching me, and inevitably passing judgment, I would take a deep breath, fix my hair, and repeat "this is so much easier than a tennis match."
For my entire life, since I was brought home from the hospital and placed as a newborn close to courtside so my parents could get a quick hit in, tennis had been the constant. No matter where we went on vacation, or what activity was planned for the weekend, finding the nearest tennis courts and reserving two hours for our playing time were always priorities. I went through phases where I hated being dragged to the local courts, because I would rather be playing recess games with my brother in the park, or watching TV in the clubhouse. Yet, there were also times when I would wander over to the huge hitting wall, and spend long periods of time hitting countless balls against the cement backdrop, dreaming of the day I would win my first Grand Slam.
Tennis wouldn't always be the far off fantasy I imagined, but it would continue to be the major event of most weekends. Soon I wouldn't be driving down the street to rally with my parents, but flying around the country to compete in national tournaments. From the first match I ever played to my last collegiate contest, I always experienced the whole gamut of human emotions. It would go from almost crippling anxiety, to hitting the nerves out, to raw competitive desire, to stumbling confidence, to a rising surge of hope, and always culminating in either crushing loss or relieving happiness. There was always a next stage, a next round, another year, another age division. But now, as I stood on that platform as the representative student speaker for the graduating class of 2010, it was over. I remembered how I would train hard, be pumped to compete, and lose a heart wrenching three setter with the match on the line because my opponent decided that it was her day to paint all the lines. Now, I wasn't competing against anyone: I didn't have to raise my level, outsmart or outhit the girl across the net. All I had to do was recite a few paragraphs, and occasionally glance up into the illuminated masses.
I stared down at my shoes, repeated, "This is so much easier than a tennis match," and walked towards the podium after Clay said "thank you" to the anonymous sea of clapping hands. I placed the now crumpled pieces of computer paper onto the podium, took one final deep breath, and began. "Tonight we acknowledge and celebrate the end of another year as part of Columbia Athletics." Although I could vividly relive stepping onto our blue courts for my first practice four years ago, I had done so for the last time. I communicated how those of us who were graduating would always be athletes, that it was part of our identity. I evoked the sense of pride we had in training, competing, winning, and representing our school and our respective sports. I only fixed my hair a few times, especially after slipping up and repeating a line, which I attempted to casually laugh off. It was a mistake, but I would persevere to the finish nonetheless. I hadn't won, I hadn't lost, I had made it through. Just as all those wins and losses in tennis would run together in my mind over the years, it was the experience, the emotion, and the energy that I would remember after my final season came to a close.
Despite my anxieties, the speech was a success—I even got a few laughs. I realized once I sat down on stage, where I would remain seated for the rest of the annual ceremony, that I could do anything. I had never given a speech before, never mind in front of that many people, but it didn't matter. After clinching 4-3 matches, after fighting through two winless years in the Ivy League, after sacrificing all I had in an effort to retain every player on the team during my senior year, I could do anything. Although my role as an NCAA athlete had ended, the strength I had during that speech, which I would bring to whatever new challenge lay ahead, was drawn from those hours on the court. So whenever I find myself blinded by the light, confronting that familiar gamut of emotions, I can say to myself with assurance, "this is so much easier than a tennis match."