It was a hot and humid day in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The May heat felt especially unbearable for a Northern California girl who was used to playing in dry, 70-degree weather. If the temperatures weren’t high enough, the stakes certainly were: my team, Stanford, was playing against Oklahoma State to decide the winner of the 2016 NCAA Division I Women’s Tennis Championship, held at the University of Tulsa’s Michael D. Case Tennis Center.
After nearly an hour and a half of battling, my opponent and I were nearing the end of a match that, for me, had more on the line than just the championship.
On my match point, I hit backhand angle that she just couldn’t get back, and that was it. Game, Set, Match, Stanford. Happiness and relief poured into me as Stanford finally went on the scoreboard for what was otherwise looking like a bleak match. After shaking hands with my opponent and sitting down, I was suddenly hit with feeling of nostalgia and sadness. I looked up at my mom, the woman who had been the main driver of my tennis career, and tears started to well up in my eyes. I got up to hug and thank her, then forced myself to put on a happy face to go cheer on my teammates. This moment was so powerful for me not simply because I was ending the season, or even my college tennis career – it was the end of my journey as a competitive tennis player.
Early in my senior year, I decided that I was going to work after college instead of continuing to play tennis. As someone who came in as the number one college tennis recruit, this decision came as a surprise to many. People encouraged me to reconsider, or at least try playing professionally for a year. However, after playing professional tennis extensively in high school and growing my passions outside of tennis during college, I knew the professional tour was not something I wanted to pursue. After a couple months of job searching, by January 2016 I had officially signed on to a fast-growing tech company in San Francisco, California, called Mulesoft, and was set to start working on July 5th.
As my work start date got closer, doubts began creeping into my mind about my decision to forgo playing tennis. Every time I had a good practice or clutch win, I would ask myself ‘do I really want to give this up?’ Ending my competitive tennis career was no longer something that was in the distant future; it was becoming a visible, near term reality. I tried to brainstorm ways I could cancel my contract and instead play on the tour, but I knew I didn’t have the money or resources to support a full-time tennis career. I had chosen my own fate, and there was no way out of it.
Upon graduation, I had only two weeks before I would start my new life as a salesperson for Mulesoft. I felt nostalgic about the end of my tennis career, but also confusion and anxiety about what was yet to come. Every day of those two weeks felt like I was slowly inching up the world’s largest roller coaster. With every click of the conveyor belt, my worries grew a little bit more, and I got a little bit closer to the peak of the drop. Tennis was not just a hobby; it was an integral part of my identity. I felt like giving up tennis meant I was going to lose a part of who I was. I did not know how it would feel to not practice three-to-four hours of tennis everyday, or watch my teammates from the sidelines instead of playing with them. Before I had time to process all my thoughts, it was the morning of July 5th, and time to start the next chapter of my life.
For those of you know or are considering ending your tennis careers, please understand that while it is a difficult and intimidating decision, it is not something you should be afraid of.
Playing on the professional tour is a very personal decision, but it is not one that should be made out of fear of what’s next. While there are challenges and strong feelings associated with stopping tennis, taking time away from the sport will help you truly appreciate all it has given to you. The memories and friendships you build in tennis, both as a junior and a collegiate athlete, are extremely unique and irreplaceable. Few moments in life can compare to watching your teammate win a deciding match, or the pride you will feel representing your university. Additionally, tennis provides you will a skill set that is very hard to develop naturally. The tenacity and mental strength required to pull through a close match, the pressure of balancing academics and athletics, learning how to work with a team while being an individual sport athlete – it’s situations like these that will propel you to be successful in the future, whether or not it includes tennis. You may be losing your identity as a tennis player when you end your tennis career, but you are not losing your entire identity; the characteristics you develop will always be a part of who you are.
One fear many tennis players have when starting the next chapter of their lives is they will never be as good at anything as they were at tennis. This is not true. The hard work and dedication required to succeed as a tennis player is more than enough to succeed in any career you may choose to pursue.
Once the roller coaster drop of my new career began, I realized that many of my fears and doubts I had leading up to the start of my job were misguided. I have embraced the challenges of a full-time career and love working with my new team. Yes, not hitting a tennis ball several hours a day is strange at first, but it was a great opportunity to explore other athletic endeavors. I have found a way to integrate tennis into my current life through teaching on weekends, a side career that has proven to be incredibly satisfying. The most important thing I have learned post-tennis is I was wrong to attribute all of my success in life to the sport. While tennis played a large part in my success, it is who I am as a person that made me successful. If you are coming to terms with ending your competitive tennis career, know that while it may come with doubts and fears, a life after tennis does exist, and it is good.
Krista Hardebeck graduated from Stanford University with degrees in Political Science and Psychology. During her time at Stanford, she was a part of two national championship teams. She is now working at a software company in San Francisco called Mulesoft. She also teaches tennis after work and on weekends.