A Lesson with Mr. Federer in Life

by Kandy Chain


I meet the most interesting people teaching tennis.  In fact, I continue to teach and play tennis because it keeps life interesting and often intriguing.


I recently received an email from the mother of one of my 10-year-old students. This woman  informed me that her father who was in his 80’s was visiting from New Jersey. He had played tennis for over 50 years but was unable to continue because of his Parkinson’s disease. He had mentioned to his daughter, Alyssa, how much he missed hitting tennis balls. Alyssa contacted me to set up a lesson with him. She wasn’t sure how long he would last or even if he could still play. I accepted the challenge.


A big Suburban arrives to the park. A group of people begins unloading from the SUV. I saw an older gentleman with a cane shakily disperse from the car and walk off in the opposite direction of the tennis courts. I assumed that was my intended lesson. His wife, daughter and son-in-law corralled him and assisted him in the correct direction.


I was thinking to myself -- how is this going to work -- he’s disoriented, he has poor balance and he needs a cane to keep him from falling over. Upon introductions and shaking hands with me he informed me that his name was Roger Federer.  For the rest of the lesson I referred to him as Mr. Federer.


I brought Mr. Federer a racquet to use for the lesson. Fortunately he didn’t notice it was a Babolat and not a Wilson. He took the racquet by the grip and shook it checking its weight and balance. He turned to his wife and handed her his cane. He stood up a little straighter and began to stride unassisted onto the tennis courts -- a man with a purpose.


I decided to approach Mr. Federer as a beginner and just drop balls to him. His chaperones surrounded him with hands forward as if he might fall at any moment. I was starting to wonder if my USPTA insurance covered this occasion. Mr. Federer stood solid and swung firmly through the ball. I moved back and tossed balls to him from the net. Forehands first then backhands – I didn’t get too technical; I was just happy he didn’t fall over. I decided not to switch up or mix the groundstrokes – no sense pressing my luck. Next I brought Mr. Federer to the net. He loved his volleys. I tried to get him to hit to me so I could rally a little bit with him. His pleasure, however, was to put the ball away. I kept asking him how he was doing – he kept responding – “a few more, a few more”.


Then it was suddenly over. He started to stagger and lose his balance. His entourage closed in on him and assisted him to a nearby picnic table in the shade. It was only 15 minutes. His daughter said she hadn’t seen him that happy in several years. For a short moment Mr. Federer had taken back control over his disease. The simple act of hitting a tennis ball gave him back his clarity and confidence.


As we get older we are often reminded that these “Super Senior” golden years pretty much suck. It seems more often we are finding ourselves in that “road of recovery.” The maladies of age keep piling up – arthritis, knee and hip replacements, bad backs, strains, tendonitis … of course it gets much worse… cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and, like Mr. Federer, Parkinson’s disease. Whatever life throws at us we seem to have that inherent attitude to get better. Tennis gives us that carrot to rehabilitate, improve and move forward. Our goal becomes to hit one more tennis ball, play many more league matches, and graduate to another age group. Mr. Federer reminds me of how much I enjoy finding my way to a tennis court.