RE-LEARNING TO ENJOY FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
I was three years old when I first hit a ball with a tennis racket. And the first tennis lesson that I took part in was a year later. Taking up tennis as a hobby was an obvious choice for me because both of my older sisters were doing it too. Also, my mom and dad loved the sport and even built a tennis court in our backyard. The four of them used to play doubles together and when I was around 6 years old I remember them trying to shoo me away cause I would interrupt their doubles matches. It’s ironic now because I’m the only one who is still playing.
A lot of people have asked me, why I play tennis or why I like it. In my opinion, there isn’t a simple way to answer this. Sometimes I don’t like it, sometimes I might even hate it and yet, I can’t live without it. Everyone knows how hard it is physically but not a lot of people know how demanding it is mentally. I’ve had many breakdowns and panic attacks because of it. I wouldn’t be able to count the times I’ve cried over tennis. But of course, there has been a lot of good as well. Tennis has given me so many different opportunities to travel or to meet amazing people. And because I’ve played tennis my entire life, it has shaped me into the person I am today. It has taught me how to fight, stand up for myself, and how important the people you choose to surround yourself with are.
I first started getting recognition in Estonia when I was around 14 years old. I was playing pretty well for my age and I had a lot of potential as coaches were saying. I won the girl's 16 Orange Bowl when I was 15 years old and competed in my first Fed Cup right after that. My confidence grew with every match I played. And even though everything seemed fine from the outside, my mental health was taking a toll. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back it’s very clear that I was overworking. I had 2 to 3 practices a day while going to school. And because I’m a perfectionist, I had to do very well in both. I gave it my all. I didn’t go to parties or have a social life at all. How could I? Even if I did have some free time, I would just be too exhausted to do anything.
The only “vacations” that I had were times when I was injured. And as I grew older I started getting more and more of them. I would blame myself for it and think to myself that my body is too weak, I need to train more so that it would withstand tough and long matches. But I was only making it worse. As an athlete, it’s very hard to know when to rest, because you don’t want to feel like you are wasting your time, or your opponents are getting ahead of you. So I would constantly over-train and by the time I was 16 I had already had two very severe back injuries which kept me away from sports for over a year, giving me and my family a scare that I might not be able to continue playing tennis at a professional level at all. Eventually, after a long and painful recovery, I was back on track and playing some of my best tennis. But to think that my biggest challenge so far was still ahead of me.
I was diagnosed with depression in November of 2020 after I couldn’t get the thought of hurting myself out of my head. It’s hard for me to pinpoint when exactly I first started experiencing symptoms of depression. I’ve found old diaries that I would fill when I was around 14 years old, filled with horrifying thoughts. Pages full of self-doubt and not understanding why I am feeling the way that I am. “Everything should be fine. I have a roof over my head, supportive parents, and amazing friends, and yet there is this emptiness inside me. Like a big black hole. It hurts and yet I feel nothing at the same time. It might be just my teenage years.” I remember feeling disappointed that I woke up in the morning, and felt sadness when I didn’t get into a car crash. And that went on for years. I thought it was normal, cause I’ve been feeling that way for so long. But it wasn’t until I was dangerously close to taking my own life that I realized I needed help. Thankfully I got it, and it was all because of the people around me. But what did it mean for tennis? Well, I realized that tennis was the cause of my depression. I wasn’t doing it for myself anymore. I was playing because I felt like I owed it to my parents, coaches, and sponsors, who had already invested so much in me. I knew I needed to stop or otherwise I wouldn’t survive, literally. So I made the scariest and hardest decision I’ve ever made. I retired. I cut off all of my sponsors, thanked my coaches, and tried to make my parents understand me.
Even though I was sure I would never pick up a racket ever again, after 7 months I started playing tennis just for fun with my friends and my ex-boyfriend. And I had a blast! I began to remember why I loved tennis in the first place. And slowly but surely I started playing more and more. I tried competing again and of course, my results weren’t amazing but I didn’t care. In those 7 months, I finally had time to do whatever I wanted. I spent time with my loved ones, got to focus on my hobbies, finished high school, and got into university, where I’m studying psychology. Those 7 months changed my perspective on life. Tennis isn’t everything.
Now I’m in a place where tennis is my main focus again. I would rather feel that I gave it my all than feel regret that I gave up trying. But I understand my value doesn’t depend on how many tournaments I win. And of course, there still are days when I don’t understand why I ever came back to tennis, but that’s normal. I’m still going to show up to practice and I’m still going to give 110% of myself on the court.