‘Is tennis worth it?’ And other life-altering, philosophical reflections from an embattled star


New students file in 24 hours before the official first day of school. Nervous and confused, many clutch their parents discreetly while simultaneously pushing them away; others nervously tap the auditorium seats. One member of the crowd, however, stands out—he’s been here before. Justin Cheun (10) had been a “new student” years ago when he first arrived at SIS, only to leave it last year; now, the stage is set for his homecoming.

The orientation ends and Justin saunters over to a table full of his old friends, who are in school to guide the new students. “Do you require assistance?” one asks mockingly. “Don’t,” he warns with a slight grin to a table of kids who used to be his “little brothers” but are now his peers. “They’re hoping to tease me,” he says, “just like my friends who continuously remind me that they will get to college first.”

On the next day, the bus arrives. Faces, new and familiar alike, flood the parking lot. Justin steps out in search for old friends who had not been at the orientation. He spots them in the distance and rushes forward to greet them, walking into open arms.

“It felt really good,” he says simply with a sheepish smile. “I never thought I would be this happy coming back to school, although it was a bit awkward now that I am ‘younger’ than my friends.” For that awkwardness, Justin only has his favorite sport, tennis, to blame.

During his year away from SIS, Justin trained at the tennis courts daily and participated in international tournaments at New Caledonia, Japan, and the US. Winning matches earned Justin “points” that determined his global ranking. They would also impress colleges, which see them as a mark of accomplishment—but only temporarily. “They disappear after a year,” he sighs. If he wanted to keep the points, Justin would have to keep playing.

Concluding that school could not be put off any longer, Justin’s parents and tennis coach sought—and found—an alternative for the upcoming year. “I’m travelling to America during the summer and will play in a showcase,” Justin says. University coaches visit these showcases and offer scholarships or college offers to players who catch their eye, and Justin hopes to be one of them.

He’s back now, but Justin can’t stop thinking periodically of the days he spent away from the hubbub of school.

While SIS students woke to a day of learning and friends, Justin woke to three hours of tennis practice. Laying his racquet on the court, he took a quick lunch break, only to resume practice for another three hours. Daily workout sessions followed without relief, leaving him flattened by the end of the day. “It was really tough at the beginning,” he says. “I cursed everybody—my parents, my coaches, myself, my friends.  And this went on for the whole year.”

“The loneliness I felt was the worst,” he confesses. “It came upon me day after day and engulfed me slowly. I felt lost and, at a point, actually depressed.”

As the pressure began to swell, the motivation Justin had maintained throughout the year—college—began to fracture, triggering Justin to question his largest, and often, sole incentive.

“I would often wonder: what is college for me? Is it so important, that I have to sacrifice my friends and a whole year of school? And although this may sound childish, I also thought about life. Why do I do what I do? What is success?” Justin recounts. As he struggled to answer these questions, Justin grew increasingly cynical of the world he lived in. “I found that I wasn’t happy about what I was doing,” he admits. “As I began to search for happiness, I thought to myself, why bother doing something I’m not happy about?”

With Justin struggling to focus, his coaches and parents urged him to work on and take full advantage of this athletic opportunity. “My coaches especially helped [my depression] by relieving me of the toughest workouts and treating me with more respect than before,” Justin says. Anticipating an end to his gap year dedicated to tennis, Justin focused his thoughts on school and his friends, drawing happiness from the two things he enjoyed and utilizing them to energize the daily routine he characterized as “tiring, and pretty drab.”

“I talked to my friends and they told me to keep it up, which made tennis more interesting and gave me the focus I needed,” he says. “In tennis, focus and intensity are the most important [factors]. It is better to practice for thirty minutes with great focus than to practice for three hours with none.”

Revitalized, Justin began to play tennis with heart and purpose. “My playing got a lot better and I started earning points in the big tournaments,” he says, with hints of pride. “At that point, I realized that I had been really immature in the beginning of the year when I was blaming others and wondering why I had to do this. I decided to take responsibility because I myself had made the final choice. Also, by doing this I realized that I had actually grown happier and more relieved in the process.”

Now, as he sits in the library, Justin chats with friends and watches them do their homework.

“What’s that for?” he asks, pointing to an avalanche of notes.

“There’s this class called AP Biology,” a friend says condescendingly, with hints of a smile. “But you wouldn’t understand.”

Justin does understand quite a few things now, but with a knowing smile he laughs and enjoys the moment; partly because he really is not taking that class, but more so because he realizes that he has earned something after all from a grueling year, to be enjoying such seemingly trivial moments like these.

The search for happiness is a well-documented and wearily-traveled road, and many who embark upon such a path realize that their search may have been sparked by living a life sustaining unseen, albeit closely felt, cracks and rifts. As Justin concludes, “I found something else that I didn’t know I was missing.”