I had a moment of sobriety over the weekend — a moment of tennis sobriety. What do I mean by this? Well, I understand the term ‘moment of sobriety’ to mean that the addict has a moment where they see with luminous clarity what they’ve been pushing out of sight forever. The distractions fade away, the denial goes on holiday, and at last one sees the truth about oneself.

I first picked up a tennis racket 66 years ago. I didn’t play at all for a couple of decades along the way, but that still adds up to a whole lot of time for flaws to get deeply embedded in my game. One of those defects declared itself to me last Saturday evening as I was lying in bed and drifting off to sleep. This is a highly alive and creative time for me — things show up in my awareness that would not get through when I’m awake.

What declared itself to me was this: My grip isn’t right on my backhand volley.

The flaw is subtle, not egregious. I volley using a continental grip, as per the conventional wisdom. Thus I’ve had plausible deniability on the question: “Do you have a problem with your backhand-volley grip?” “Hell, no,” my answer’s been. “I grip the racket correctly.”

And yet. And yet.

(A pause ensues while Carl dissolves into copious weeping.)

And yet I coulda-shoulda known better. Now that I’ve had my moment of sobriety, I look back at my backhand volley and note multiple glaring symptoms of a less-than-perfect grip:

  • I have trouble ‘sticking’ the ball, the tennis term for hitting it crisply with just the right amount of underspin. Instead, it tends to float.
  • My accuracy is approximate, not precise.
  • I tend to be a bit too wristy, which I now see as how I compensate technically for a grip that doesn’t allow me to bring the racket into the ball at precisely the right angle.
  • No matter how much I work on my backhand volley, it only gets marginally better, which suggests that I haven’t been getting at the real problem.

It’s not that my backhand volley is terrible. It’s vulnerable, though. Thanks to my moment of sobriety, I now believe I know why.

My equivalent to waking up with a splitting headache in a gutter somewhere came to me over the weekend when a backhand overhead came my way during a doubles game. I was on the ad side and I wanted to angle it away from my opponents into the alley on their ad side. I did get a sharp angle, but I overdid a good thing by a wide margin, and I do mean wide — my shot hit the side wall on a short-hop.

Yowzer. I blushed, said something appropriately self-deprecatory, and did my best to move on. It was only that evening as I was lying in bed that I realized that a misbegotten grip was the only way I could have botched that shot so badly. While a coach watching on the sidelines wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with my grip, at a more subtle level I was sabotaging myself and dooming myself to a subpar backhand volley.

Tomorrow I’m scheduled for a practice session and my backhand volley grip will get my full and extended attention. Is the problem the angle of the racket in my palm? The position of my index finger? Will I do better with a slightly different shade of continental — a tiny bit more in one direction or another? I’ll run experiments tomorrow in the hope that I’ll discover the nuance that shifts my backhand volley from suspect to reliable.

There are levels beneath the levels — there are games beneath the games. This is true in the great sport of tennis, and it’s also true for the psyche, where the darkness can hide the greatest jewels of all. I’m grateful for the liminal moment that gave me my insight into my backhand volley, and I’m even more grateful that I noticed it — and had the good sense to mine the jewel.

Do you pay attention to the whisperings of your subconscious? How well do you pay attention to the wisdom that lies within?