Even at college level, tennis is an ethereally beautiful sport. The levels of strategy employed within the small rectangle are almost infinite. The game is played as much in the players’ heads as it is on the court. Watching Haig Schneiderman, 21, and captain of Columbia University’s tennis team, play is as fascinating as it is watching one of the top players in the world. For each shot that Schneiderman makes, whether it is in practice or in game play, there is a meaning to it.
Schneiderman is hitting with teammate Nathaniel Gery on the first of the six indoor, hard courts at the Dick Savitt Tennis Center – Columbia’s home courts located on the ridiculously picturesque upper western tip of Manhattan by Inwood Hill Park. They begin with a few light hits, standing at the edge of their service lines. And then slowly they up the ante, smacking groundstrokes from the baseline with astonishing power – the kind that you wouldn’t expect to see in college tennis. The margins that distinguish the best from the rest are very thin – it can go unnoticed by a casual observer. Schneiderman wants to compete with the best; he wants to shatter those margins that separate him from the professionals. When he graduates as an economics major next May, he harbors hopes of turning pro. The challenge, however, is not merely mighty, but at many levels unnerving too.
“The realities of the men’s professional-tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin,” wrote David Foster Wallace in a seminal essay in Esquire. The realities of college tennis are bleaker still. Even in the effort to make the grade, though, is ingrained an element of heroism, an element of perseverance.
Wearing a white t-shirt and white shorts, Schneiderman, who is right-handed, looks a tennis player. He is six feet two inches tall and one hundred and seventy pounds heavy. He has sharp features and a sinewy body. He sports a scruffy stubble; his jaw is sharp and his eyebrows meet gently above his long, pointed nose. His calf muscles are well defined – a product of hours and hours of tennis – and his forearms are muscular, if not immense. His game itself has a simple elegance to it. His light brown eyes are always focused intently on the ball – there is a detached concentration to his play – the kind that one usually sees from chess players. The ball toss on the serve is not the highest, but the motion is neat. He can hit his serve both down the line and slice it away from his opponent with equal ease and great disguise. His forehand is possibly his strong suit – he seems to think so, at any rate – but his double-handed backhand has a beauty to it – he hits through it crisply and regally with both pace and topspin.
“My backhand used to be a weakness,” Schneiderman says, while sitting on a bench in the grassy, sloped verandah outside the center that overlooks the Harlem River, after practice. “I’ve had to work very hard at it. Now I can use it offensively.” Schneiderman can be remarkably lucid when talking about his game. He says he has to think constantly about the dynamics of power and accuracy: “With some opponents, I can sense that they aren’t reading my serve. Then, I can afford to take some pace off and concentrate on placement.”
“Having a big serve helps at this level. If I want to go pro, I need to win easy points – need to win in three or four shots.” He practices long and hard on his first serves and his “first forehand,” as he puts it. “My first forehand is my most important shot. I try to dictate play with it.” Every day, Schneiderman spends about three hours on the courts with Columbia’s coaches, Bid Goswami and Howard Endelman. Endelman, who was appointed the Associate Head Coach in 2010, once competed in the ATP Tour. He said, of Schneiderman, “He’s certainly got a game that is suited for pro tennis and I think he can make it. He has a great serve and a terrific forehand and these are assets that will serve him very well. But the start that he makes is crucial.”
Schneiderman’s focus, for now, at least, in on the Ivy League championships in the spring. In his first two years at Columbia, Schneiderman played a pivotal role in leading Columbia to victory. In 2009, he was named the Ivy League Men’s Tennis Rookie of the Year, while in his sophomore year he enjoyed a 17-3 record, including a win in the crucial decider against Princeton, which clinched the championship. “It was my greatest moment,” Schneiderman, suddenly bursting with enthusiasm, says, “it was one set each and the entire thing was on the line. I was able to control the decider.” A troublesome back, however, laid him low for large parts of last year. “I wasn’t able to even get up or take my socks out after that match against Princeton. It plagued practice for many months. I saw numerous doctors and they suggested surgery, but Tommy Sheehan, the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Columbia, introduced me to some specialists who were able to solve the problem. They were able to understand the biomechanics of it better. It was killing me.”
The body feels good again now, Schneiderman says, and he is raring to help Columbia regain the Ivy League Championships. “Obviously I want to go pro after this, but for now I am just concentrating on the team. As long as I keep working on my game, it takes care of what I need to do afterwards.” He is, however, aware of the difficulties in pursuing tennis as a career. “It’s expensive. And it can leave you a bit empty. I had offers from big tennis schools, but I chose Columbia because it gives me a more rounded education.”
Schneiderman interned in the mergers and acquisitions wing of Ernst and Young in the summer. He found it enjoyable [“it didn’t have the pressure of an investment banking job,”] but it’s not something that he sees himself doing for a career. He plans to use the money he saved from the internship and whatever he can get from his parents to fund his initial foray into professional tennis. “I’ll have to start by playing the qualifiers of the ITF’s [International Tennis Federation] Futures Events. I want to play in Latin America or Europe where the level of competition will be right and where I can get to experience a new culture.”
Schneiderman is half Armenian. His father, also named Haig, was born to Armenian parents in New York. Sargis Sargsian, an Armenian who was once ranked in the top forty of the world, is a huge inspiration to Schneiderman. “I definitely feel that connection. I practiced with Sargsian twice in Vegas and he is a big influence,” Schneiderman says in his genially sincere tone.
Born in the ‘lower west side’ of New York, Schneiderman still lives there with his parents. He began playing tennis at Forest Hills in Queens where the U.S. Open once used to be played. His coach there, Chris Pucci remains a big influence. “He’s my mentor. I still practice under him in the summer in New Jersey where he now coaches.” He is also quick to credit his parents for their support. “My father introduced me to the sport and my mom has had to make so many sacrifices. She drove me around to all the tournaments, from my high school, Horace Mann, to New Jersey for practice and so on. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her.”
Schneiderman is levelheaded enough to realize that tennis may not work out for him professionally. “It can get to a point where it’s just not worth it. I’m not looking for sponsors right now. It will depend on how well I do in my first few tournaments. It’s not a fun lifestyle. It can be quite a grind.”
Regardless of how he does in the professional circuit, though, Schneiderman wants to be involved with tennis. “Deep down, I want to do something with tennis. Maybe I’ll start a program for kids who don’t have access to the sport. I am not sure exactly what I’ll do, but I want to spread the sport and give kids who can’t afford the sport a chance to play it.”
Schneiderman sees tennis as a metaphor for life. “One of the great things about tennis is the number of people I’ve met. I’ve learnt so many life lessons from it. If nothing else, my experience will help me through the rest of my life.”
[Note: This profile is partly inspired by the late David Foster Wallace’s magnificent essay in Esquire titled “The String Theory.” There, Wallace focuses on Michael T. Joyce’s forays in the qualifying rounds of the Canadian Open. And in Wallace style, I chose to put this into a footnote:http://www.esquire.com/features/sports/the-string-theory-0796]