Life and Tennis: One and the Same

Note: All images used in this article have been provided through the courtesy of the Wiersholm family.

Just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes, California, Henrik Wiersholm reflects on the career he’s had and the one he hopes to achieve. All his life, he has been working to be the best tennis player he can possibly be, with dreams of playing the professional circuits and shaping his life in the mold of tennis. With three NCAA Championships at the University of Virginia, Henrik’s time in college has been nothing but decorated by success. But, approaching his final season in college, he must rebound from an injury that sidelined him from his passion for nearly a year, forcing him to contemplate for the first time who he is without a racket and a ball. In essence, he has come to confront the daunting uncertainty of what life has in store for him once collegiate tennis ends.

Henrik, currently 21 years old, has been playing tennis since he was five, when his parents bought a membership for the closest gym to their Kirkland, Washington home. That gym happened to also be a tennis club, and soon enough Henrik started hitting balls to himself off the wall with a tiny racket. Before long, his parents enrolled him in lessons, and even though no one knew it quite yet, he began what would eventually become his life’s passion.

Early on, his family realized the potential Henrik had and introduced him to the Junior Circuit once he was old enough. If a player wants any shot at going pro, “Tennis is one of those sports where you really have to start young,” Henrik says. So, by the age of 11, he and his family started travelling around the United States to various tennis tournaments. Once he finished middle school, he and his family started to go international, playing in some of the most elite tournaments in the world.

 

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By the age of 15, Henrik had already won the U.S. Juniors National Championships in both singles and doubles, in addition to winning the ITF 14-and-under Junior World Championships in the Czech Republic the year before.

After much discussion, Henrik said goodbye to his parents and sister after his freshman year of high school and traveled to the exact opposite corner of the country to move into the dorms of a tennis boarding school in Boca Raton, Florida. There, he trained and competed every day in an academic and athletic environment much more conducive to his lifestyle. He recognized the need to mature as well, and soon found himself with a professional mentality and work ethic unlike anything he had back home in Kirkland.

Henrik admits he was convinced he was going to play professional tennis when he was just a freshman in high school. As the third-ranked recruit in his graduating class, college was an afterthought. It was just a step along the way to reaching his ultimate goal and dream of playing among the best on the pro circuit. But after years of playing by himself and for himself, Henrik fell in love with a whole new kind of tennis when he began his collegiate career in the fall of 2018 at the age of 17.

Professional tennis is often viewed as an extremely singular sport, where players are more or less on their own, save for a few coaches and trainers. This is not the case at all in collegiate tennis, where winning an individual match is meaningless if the team falters. So, when Henrik found himself playing for the University of Virginia, fighting for and with the guys around him, he was in decidedly uncharted personal territory.

As usual, Henrik didn’t need much help adjusting to a new home. He didn’t even need much help adjusting to his rigorous training and academic schedule. Instead, Henrik found himself in the same place for months at a time and a part of something bigger than himself, two things that he had not experienced in years.

Adapting to college tennis “is one of the most challenging things [a player] can transition into,” said Henrik’s former UVA coach Brian Boland. “There is so much that they have to be responsible for”, but in Henrik’s case he came into Virginia “with the proper values, coming from a great home.”

For the first time since his childhood, he realized that the goal was not only to improve his own game, but those of his teammates as well. Henrik soon embodied the notion, as the team camaraderie and friendship he found at UVA provided a much-needed balance to the extreme mental toll tennis can exert on an athlete. According to Coach Boland, Henrik “epitomized everything any coach would want in a student athlete. He is a leader, student, player, friend, and teammate.”

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Even in the more team-oriented arena of college tennis, the sport still possesses the psychological impact of an individually focused game. “It’s easy to tie your value or your identity as a person to your success on the court,” Henrik says, explaining that “In tennis, if you lose a match, it’s no one else’s fault. You have to be introspective and ask ‘Okay, what did I do wrong?’ Because there’s no one else on the court to take the blame.”

Henrik has experienced some truly remarkable highs during his time at UVA. Henrik has a 32-1 record in ACC regular season singles matches, and has earned a spot on numerous all-tournament and all-conference teams since his first year. In addition, each of his first three seasons resulted in a hard-fought, sweetly earned NCAA Championship. In his second trip to the NCAA Finals, he delivered the title-clinching match, seeing all of the hard work and dedication crystallize into a single moment as his teammates swarmed toward him, yelling and celebrating another national title.

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Then, just before his fourth and final season, Henrik ceased all tennis activity.

A few months before in the ACC Tournament, Henrik stretched out for a ball and immediately felt a pull in his shoulder. Grimacing in pain, he fought through it and played all the way through the NCAA Championships and into the summer, until one match in July when the pain became too much to bear, and Henrik had no choice but to shut down his training. Returning to UVA, Henrik went through a battery of tests revealing a partial rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder. As his worst nightmare became a reality, doctors told him he could not play tennis for the next nine months if he wished to compete again.

Henrik had never faced an injury that kept him out of tennis for a prolonged stretch, let alone one that prevented him from basic practice. Devastated, he would be left to stand on the sidelines, taking a medical red-shirt in what would have been his last collegiate season before finally realizing his dream of playing in the professional circuits.

Instead, he was faced with rehab five days a week, total restriction on lifting with his upper body, and nine months without playing the sport he loved.

Soon enough, it began to drive him crazy.

Henrik has sculpted this mindset since childhood, to the point where it became second nature, an integral part of who he is. But, this mentality didn’t necessarily translate to the world of rehabilitation. He was used to competing mentally against his opponents and keeping his calm in a match, not waiting patiently in doctors’ offices and being told to stay off the court he desperately wanted to get back on.

“Tennis is very cerebral. There is a ton of strategy that goes into how you approach each match, and even each point,” Henrik explains. When a player steps on the court, he or she becomes their own coach, responsible for all adjustments, decisions, and mental checks. Tennis is a sport that constantly poses new problems that require new answers for every point, game, and set won or lost. Through it all, Henrik says, it is extremely difficult to keep discipline and a cool head.

Henrik had no idea what to do or expect after his injury. He reflected, explaining that “Tennis definitely becomes a part of your identity, and you can get it associated in your head that you are a tennis player. That is what you do, that is all you do. When you get hurt, you can’t play. You can’t possibly identify yourself as a tennis player during that time. So, you have to figure out, ‘Who am I really?’”

The five or more hours of his day carved out for tennis were suddenly freed up. He threw himself into academics, spent time with friends, and even picked up a guitar and started to learn. However, everything he tried didn’t feel quite right, not like it would if he were playing.

For the first time in his life, Henrik had to seriously reflect on who he was outside of tennis. It wasn’t easy, as he recalls how “There were days that were dark, there were days where I was wondering, ‘Will I be able to play again?’” It’s a feeling that every athlete hopes they will never experience, and one that Henrik had to struggle mightily with. So many athletes encompass themselves in their sport, and for good reason. It is hard to be the best when one doesn’t dedicate their life to their sport. But when things slow down, or even threaten to stop altogether, life outside the niche world of elite athletics comes into focus.

For some, it is absolutely terrifying.

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Henrik has had moments where he’s felt slightly burned out. He’s also had moments where he feels that he could have worked harder. But if Henrik has learned anything from his injury, it is that tennis is where he belongs, tennis is a part of who he is, and he loves nothing more than walking onto the court and competing.

Always thoughtful of the opportunities he’s possessed, Henrik has come out of his recovery with a new outlook and appreciation for not just tennis itself, but the value he has gained from it. Henrik explains that tennis is not all about winning championships, describing how “You’re so sure that it’s going to make you happy… but in the end you realize it’s all about the daily process of getting to that point.” Winning the championship is undoubtedly one of the best feelings there is, but he emphasizes that “Just living it all the right way – that’s where you really draw your sense of value from the whole experience,” not with a single moment, but as a collective whole.

Collegiate tennis has been a passion of Henrik’s since the moment it began, and with his fourth season approaching this spring, he is ready to embrace it one final time. But now as he stays with his friend in a Palos Verdes apartment, Henrik is pensive about what his path will be after UVA. He knows he could be playing for five years or twenty, but no matter what life throws at him, he will be ready. Although he does not have a certain idea of what his life might be like in a few years, Henrik knows that he’ll tackle that question just like each one he faces on the court: with a fierce determination and a will to succeed.

When asked what he is most anticipating after his UVA career is over, Henrik responds that he’s just excited to see how good he can be. He’s never been able to treat tennis as a profession and fully give his all to the sport that has become such a tremendous part of his life. He’s never been able to spend all day on the court fine-tuning his stroke or hit the weight room to condition his body the best he can. For him, that is all he can ask for going forward, and Henrik is ready to become the best player he knows he is capable of being.

After five years of calling one place home, he’ll hit the road once again, tackling tournaments across the country – and the world – like he once did as a teenager. Where he’ll call home will become uncertain. It could be in certain tennis hubs such as Los Angeles or Florida, or it could even be in Charlottesville. Wherever it is, he’s excited for the challenges he’ll face, the mental games he’ll play, and the problems on the court he’ll have to solve.

Tennis has been a part of Henrik’s life for as long as he can remember. It has made him the man he is today, and he could not be happier to be a tennis player. But, as he learned when he was diagnosed with a partial rotator cuff tear, the sport that has given him so much could disappear from his life in an instant. This is true not only for Henrik, but anyone who has ever loved a sport.

Henrik, after experiencing nine months away from tennis, is perhaps one of the lucky few who can fully understand what their game means to them. As he eventually moves into the world of professional tennis, that realization will be valuable, and it will also make every game, set, and match that much sweeter.

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