The great game of tennis has origins that date back to 1,000 BC when French monks played ceremonial “je de paume,” or game of the
hand. Initial tennis balls were wooden, and the first wooden racket used was laced with sheep gut. It was not until the invention of rubber and the bouncier ten- nis ball in the mid-1800s that tennis saw its popularity soar. Many versions of the game have evolved to become what is now 1 of the most popular sports in the world. Young and old, rich and poor, amateur and professionals share the simple act of hitting a ball over a net on a rectangular court.
At first glance, there may not be too many obvious similarities between tennis and interventional cardi- ology. But, a closer look draws them together. First, both are graced with pioneers who propelled the sport and the field to affect the lives of so many on a global scale. Tennis legends, such as Althea Gibson, Fred Perry, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Virginia Wade, Arthur Ashe, and many others defied norms with courage and perseverance and proved to be champions for the sport. Similarly, the amazing field of interventional cardiology would not exist if not for giant innovators, such as Werner Forssmann, Claude Bernard, Dickinson Richards, F. Mason Sones, Charles Dotter, and Andreas Gruentzig, to name a few. Just like tennis champions, their commitment and love for the field drove their success.
Tennis and interventional cardiology also connect when one considers the training and technique involved, be it on a tennis court or in a laboratory full of x-ray equipment. Both are physically demanding, relying more on technique than brute force. Hitting the flawless single-handed topspin backhand requires countless hours of practice to perfect the mechanics of a complicated stroke. Similarly, many hours are spent during fellowship and beyond to safely obtain vascular access, master wiring a tortuous vessel, or navigate delivery of a percutaneous aortic valve. There are many dots that need to be connected precisely to accomplish the goal each time. Those who do it well have the best outcomes, be it a victory on the scoreboard or a successfully treated patient. In addition to parallelism in technical aspects, both tennis and interventional cardiology require mental focus and acumen that has to be sustained to achieve the desired goals of winning the match and treating the patient safely. Many times, the world’s best players falter to players of lesser caliber because of mental mistakes. Even the masters of interventional cardiology are at risk for complications borne of poor decision-making. The need to have your head in the game is of paramount importance when considering the use of either the racket or the catheter.
Another commonality is the misperception that tennis and interventional cardiology are solo pur- suits. Though there is a single person in charge on the court and in the laboratory, to excel, one needs an outstanding team. In the catheterization laboratory, the team includes nurses, techs, and trainees. On the court, it is the team of personal trainers, coaches, and family members that helps support the player.
Perhaps what brings the 2 closest together is the unpredictable human element. In tennis, it is the opponent across the net, and in the catheterization laboratory, it is the patient lying on the table under a sterile drape. There is an inherent unpredictability in what may be required to be successful on any given day, and the “game plan” needs to be individualized each time. During a match, there needs to be constant awareness of the opponent. A few points often decide a challenging match, and those who play well under pressure usually win on the court. Similarly, when treating a complex, high-risk patient, calmness and focus in a life and death circumstance is an essential trait. Often times, it is millimeters that matter, and just like playing the big points in a match, there is minimal room for error.
Although the similarities are many, there is some- thing tennis can teach us as medical providers, and that is the art of celebrating our victories. World-class tennis players show their mental fortitude by not allowing mistakes to dictate their game and build on the confidence of each victory. In medicine, we often review and critique our mistakes ad nauseam, but we rarely talk about the many ways we help and treat countless patients each day. It is rare that there is a celebratory recognition of a job well done when a sick patient is treated successfully. It takes a team of committed individuals, including doctors, nurses, and techs, to awake in the middle of the night, to rescue an artery, the pericardium, or a threatened limb: a feat that should be celebrated each time. This may not include a loud scream accompanied by a fist thrust in the air replayed in slow motion or a fall to the knees in gratitude, and there is not a beautiful trophy that will sit on our shelf. But, a verbal acknowledgement of a job well done would go a long way in shifting the focus from our mistakes to our successes.
Tennis complements interventional cardiology, and vice versa. A tough victory on the court can enhance the confidence needed to perform a flawless inter- vention, and similarly, a successful day of intervention can bolster the right attitude on the court.
For those who play, tennis can be the perfect antidote to a tough day in the laboratory. As it may be true for many other pursuits, there is a therapeutic release that accompanies hitting a tennis ball. Perhaps it is the singular focus of swinging the racket to meet the ball at the perfect time in flight and willfully forcing its direction. Perhaps it is focusing on the sound the ball makes as the racket swings through it. Maybe it is simply because of the challenge it represents. Regardless of the reasons, I feel privileged to partake in both, and I also recognize the passion and dedication that both require.
Dr Ahmed is an Interventional Cardiologist at Santa Barbara Cardiovascular Medical Group and was formerly Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine. Dr. Ahmed completed Internal Medicine residency at the University of Massachusetts, a Women’s Health fellowship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, followed by general Cardiology and Interventional Cardiology fellowships from the University of Vermont. Read On