There comes a moment in life when you’re so exhausted, drained, and empty from it all that when the ground opens up, you just let yourself free fall, without resisting at all, into a dark merciless unceasing hole. That moment happened to me a few months ago when I separated from my husband. Though the end of the marriage was a relief, the aftermath was nonetheless excruciatingly painful.

For over 10 years, I had built my life around this family unit that I fought tooth and nail to keep together. But alas, as difficult as it was, life had to be pivoted. Despite it all, I tried my best to keep to my son’s schedule and plans with minimal disruptions –– this meant tennis summer camp continues at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain.

The only caveat? Because I’m bringing him there and staying at the academy’s hotel, I had to play too.

Never too late to learn

I had never played tennis before, though I’ve zealously encouraged my son to do so as a bonding activity with his father. As reluctant as I was to start the sport at my age, the academy enthusiastically expressed that all levels were welcomed. Unbeknownst to me at that time, it turned out to be something I desperately needed to do as well.

As we flew in from halfway around the world, a beautifully manicured campus with exotically fragrant flowers and buzzing bees welcomed us. Suave unpretentious buildings blended in with the seemingly endless hard and clay tennis courts. Children of all ages eagerly showcased their skills, whipping balls back and forth to the effect of a well-chorused symphony.

Although the notorious Mallorcan sun was relentless, the heat was dry enough to ensure constructive playing conditions. It was definitely a refreshing departure from the suffocating humidity and harsh neon lights of the cement jungle we had just left behind.

Getting to know the game

Upon arriving at my first class, approximately 25 adults and I were met by a line of extremely fit coaches. They first put us through warm-up drills, such as ‘cross side-steps (which I had never done before), before dispersing us to the courts to display our abilities. Then, one of the coaches explained, we would be separated into appropriate groups for the rest of the week, but if we felt strongly about our level, we could also let them know beforehand.

Though he appreciated my forthrightness about being a beginner, for the next hour or so, I still had to subject an unfortunate hitting partner to a barrage of erratic shots, often hit too hard by this unyielding strength that I didn’t know I had in me. Subsequently, I was put in a group with a tall, friendly, left-handed lady from Denmark, a petite, quiet, elderly lady from California, and an athletic, outgoing, affable gentleman from Mexico. Together, we began this tennis learning journey.

The next few days, coaches Nazar and Johann taught us the forehand, backhand, volley, serve, and various shots per Rafa Nadal Academy methods and techniques. They broke them down into meticulously detailed steps: how to grip the racquet, the composition of the swing, to the synchronising twist of the body. We were patiently given pointers, demonstrations on what we were doing versus what we could do to improve, and much appreciated ample one-on-one coaching time.

As if by magic, my ‘home runs’ diminished in number and were replaced by shots flying in perfect projectiles over the net, successfully landing inside the court. My confidence surged, igniting this forgotten spark inside of me. Anything was possible. Naturally, there were frustrating moments; but the eagle-eyed coaches would immediately spew out counsel, and with practice, I was back on track.

Learning more than just tennis

My new friends constantly showered me with words of encouragement, and each tiny accomplishment was rewarded by a high five. I relished our chats as we picked up the tennis balls for the next drill, discovering new and interesting facets of their backgrounds and lives. Personally, I didn’t like the torturous competitive nature of King/Queen of the Court, but I did find myself laughing hard throughout the game. The camaraderie was marvellous and invigorating.

After years of minimal cardio activity, my body exhibited intense soreness early on. However, I soldiered on, knowing I must be doing something right, for I used muscles I hadn’t in years. I felt fitter, healthier, and alive. The two-hour classes flew by and I found myself lingering after class, often volunteering to sweep the clay courts. I enjoyed the moment of calmness while I counted my little victories of the day. I was happy.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised, but one day, the Mexican gentleman asked me, “Are you married?” Taken aback by possibly the forwardness of the question, I insecurely stammered, “Yes, but I am in the process of getting a divorce.” It felt surreal saying it out loud; announcing it so publicly. Still stunned, I did not know what to expect next, but to my astonishment, he replied that he went through a divorce when he was 26 years old. That it was a painful experience and a lot of it was psychological. It took a few seconds, but I felt a heavy stone lift off my chest and I could breathe again. I was understood.

You’ve got a friend in me

I believe there are moments when you’re supposed to meet certain people in your life. After my encounter with the Mexican gentleman, I by chance, sat at a dinner table with three other ladies playing at the academy for their children.

The lady from South Carolina casually mentioned her annual custody arrangement with her ex-husband. Perhaps it was the newfound assurance or the sincere warmhearted vibe that the lady exuded, but I plucked up the courage and asked her for advice, divulging that I was currently navigating through a divorce. Immediately, she took me under her wing and we struck up a heartfelt conversation.

Before long, the other ladies joined in and with this invisible bond binding us together, we openly shared our stories. The Japanese lady exclaimed that she was a divorcee, now remarried and living with her husband and two boys in New York City. The Jamaican lady disclosed that she was a product of divorced parents but is now living in Lagos, happily married with twins. There were tears and laughter as we narrated our experiences and reacted to each other’s ups and downs.

As I sit and write this article today, I am still beyond stunned at the toxic relationships, the harrowing escapes, and how undeniably strong, mentally, physically and emotionally, these ladies are. While we added each other’s contacts on our phones, cementing our continuous support for each other, I knew I was not alone.

A work in progress

As the week came to an end, I look back at my new friends, my achievements, and my wellbeing. I’ve made momentous progress in every aspect, and I’m honestly proud of myself. However, I’m not out of the rabbit hole yet, and I’m far from even being an intermediate tennis player. It takes time to heal and ‘brushing’ the ball to create that Rafa Nadal topspin takes much more practice. Yet, I know that no matter how long it may take, it’s not impossible to succeed.

Coincidently, in the midst of my reflections, a wise 70-year-old American lady that I happened to encounter reminded me that there will be multiple ups and downs in life. She candidly revealed that her husband passed away a while ago. She was at the academy to work on her mental health and prove to herself that she was strong enough to achieve her goals. I was humbled by her fortitude, and will not forget that no matter how old I was, as long as I have the right mindset, I will always be strong enough to do something for myself.

Before leaving the academy, my son asked, befittingly of most children sceptical of their mother’s physical abilities, if I managed to hit the ball in class. I smiled and answered confidently, “Yes, I did.” And so much more.

*All images courtesy of the author.