A great many portraits of the tennis life focus on the stars. Here’s Novak in Serbia, Murray at practice, Federer anywhere. Or, in America, a look at our native sons and daughters, be it the life of John Isner, the ascent of Taylor Fritz, the community work of Madison Keys, the enduring excellence of Serena.
But a new Tennis Channel series, My Tennis Life, offers a rarely seen glimpse into professional tennis, taking viewers inside the journeys of two players who’ve yet to crack the top 50.
The male lead is the grizzly, likeable, big-serving, net-rushing Aussie, Sam Groth. Currently ranked 184, once as high as 53, Groth has an unusual athletic background for a tennis player. Growing up, he balanced tennis with Australian Rules football.
His female co-star is an American, 86th-ranked Nicole Gibbs. A two-time NCAA singles champion at Stanford, Gibbs’ career-high ranking is 68. She’s also exceptionally outspoken. A recent New Yorker article delved into Gibbs’ engagement with social issues, citing a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that’s posted on her Twitter page: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Most of all, what makes Groth and Gibbs compelling subjects is that each has taken a sober and distant look at whether life as a pro is worth it. In 2011, Groth left the tour to play Aussie Rules for the Vermont Eagles in Melbourne.
As for Gibbs, just over a year ago she wrote a thoroughly confessional Facebook post about her frustrations, detailing a litany of losses, chokes, coaching shifts, racquets tried, racquets broken. Gibbs’ purge concluded with this quote from author Samuel Beckett: “‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ With absolutely no irony intended, I cannot wait to start my 2016 campaign. Onwards and upwards. #striveforgreatness #allworthit.”
The longstanding instructor Steve Stefanki once told me, “Outcome is passive. Process is active.” As we watch these two, through back courts and stadiums, from the qualifying to the majors, we will see that concept play out with a vengeance. Fail better indeed.