Former professional tennis player Neha Uberoi reflects on her life after tennis in a personal essay about her struggles and career.
In 2008 at 22 years old, I quit tennis and my world ended. Tennis had been my life for 17 years, but after I quit, a simple question like “What do you do?” sent me deep in to confinement: physical, emotional, spiritual. In the confines of my room, my closet, the balcony or even the edge of my roof, I pondered life itself and tried to decide whether to jump or to step back inside and get over myself.
I felt like a wounded soldier discharged from battle, someone who was suddenly stripped of her duty, given a new identity and asked to be happy, immediately; someone who was expected to figure it all out and to blend in, after years of living on the fringe.
Since I was nine, I had trained seven hours a day for six days a week. I had one goal: become a tennis champion. Eventually, my mind numbed from my singular focus and my body revolted in violent bulimic episodes that lasted for years. The post-vomit collapses were moments in which I felt peace. I could finally surrender. My environment was drenched in oppressive pressure and depressive behaviors—cutthroat competition, a volatile and controlling coach, family pressure and a self-inflicted obligation to succeed fueled my resentment toward the game.
“Hit high and heavy in the middle of the court, then run around with your forehand every chance you get. She hates having no angle. She doesn’t like balls in the meedle,” said my coach in his heavy Spanish accent. He had outlined the perfect match strategy to execute. I had practiced this pattern hundreds of times before but I still knew I was going to lose. She was ranked 170 spots higher than me. She was taller, thinner, prettier. She was Russian. I pulled my hat down further over my eyes and stared at my thighs as we were escorted in the back of a golf cart to a far-off court in Jarry Stadium in Montreal in August 2006.
To my surprise, I followed the game plan to the T—no nerves, no expectations. Final score: 6–3, 6–0, Uberoi. It was the biggest win of my blossoming career. I shook hands and did a cool down as my coach talked about all that was left to accomplish in the tournament and on the road to the top 10.
Back at the hotel room I was left alone to review my match video and retire for the evening. I went through each point on my laptop selecting “good points” and “bad points” and I compiled them in to neatly organized folders to study later on. I walked over to the hotel room window and looked down 15 stories below. I pressed my body slowly against the glass, hoping that it would give way and send me crashing down. It didn’t budge. I locked my door and wept myself to sleep. My body was begging my mind to start listening to my heart.
And so I changed. I started what would be a long and painful process of letting go of something I was expected to be—a tennis champion. I was trapped in a dichotomy of two worlds. I could continue pursuing this self-destructive tennis path or I could stop, reassess and move forward with a healthier and richer life. At 21, it was a difficult choice.
What followed were five years of depression, anger, intense anxiety and crippling confusion. My thoughts—which used to be on future wins—were mired in the past. If I had just lost those 10 pounds. If I had just hit that one forehand in, instead of out. If I had just listened better. If I had just tried a little harder, I could have made it. I could have been happy.
Instead, I was back in school at 23 when I had expected to come back at 33, at the end of a long illustrious tennis career. I had envisioned myself arriving at a prestigious university with millions of dollars in the bank, thinking, Well, this is fun. Instead, I arrived at Princeton University in 2009 and felt that old mounting pressure to make something of myself all over again. I felt like I was always behind. I believed that my peers were much smarter than me—every single one of them had achieved academic superstardom. Instead of winning, anticipating loss became a habit, a strange source of comfort. I built my own purgatory of “never enough” and I became desperate for a new identity. I needed to recreate my own Wimbledon—a new, grand goal to work toward. Something that would force me to stop facing my deep insecurities, emotions and demons.
And so I shifted focus. Instead of beating myself up, I searched inside myself until I realized that what I believed were my innermost needs—to be the best, to feel good enough for others—would never allow me to fully succeed. And my body, once again, communicated with me—this time in the form of an acne breakout that covered my face in the way my suicidal thoughts were covering my hope. The breakout was my last straw: vanity pleaded for an urgent and curative mental change.
So, for the first time, I tried to take a break. I allowed myself an easy pace, even though I hated the idea of a respite. The old belief that I always needed to be doing something arduous, complex, extreme, only meant for the select elite, was hard to overcome. And so my break didn’t turn out as I’d meant it—a chance to find happiness by just allowing myself to exist. But it did teach me something important.
Slowly, I found my toxic psychology stemmed from a fundamental flaw—I always push myself from a place of self-dissatisfaction. Had I ever pushed myself to do something out of a place of self-satisfaction? I knew that these words—satisfaction, achievement, enough—are so tricky for ex-athletes. We are used to better, best, more, harder. But self-satisfaction? That word made me cringe. And yet.
In Yoga they say “root to rise,” a phrase that helps me think that there is something better for me in the future. But even if there isn’t, the joy and peacefulness of being me is slowly creeping in. In my focus on being the best not-best person that I can be; in my search for everyday joy and simple self-satisfactions are coming stable moods, a smile for no reason, more love for my loved ones, more patience and more creativity. I am most fond of the last one.
I graduated Princeton in 2012. Now, I’m starting to think in new ways. I’m no longer pestering myself to move on to the next thing, to do more, to be better. I’m feeling happy in stability, in being present and fully experiencing each day. My imbalances and impulses made life wilder, but they also made me feel like I was racing toward some impossible dream, like Don Quixote, refusing to give up.
For the first time, I’m not scared to listen to what I really want deep down. That voice—the one that tells me the truth—is getting louder and stronger. And I'm challenging all my old ways, like need to work out at six a.m., no matter what, or the pace of my walk—those anxious, hasty steps; the athletic, no-bullshit stride; the efficient pace that says: I’m destined for greatness so you better keep up with me.
I may not be sure where I’m headed, but I know it’s somewhere new.
Neha Uberoi is a former professional tennis player, Indian-American role model and respected wellness authority. After leaving pro tennis, she graduated from Princeton University in 2012. Uberoi is a wellness coach and runs a popular blog, nehauberoi.com and has a YouTube channel where she covers personal development, wellness and fitness with insight and honesty. She can be reached via her website and Twitter @neha_uberoi.