Why I Play Tennis: MLS Veteran Chris Wingert’s Off-Season Passion

Chris Wingert
by Chris Wingert
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Why I Play Tennis: MLS Veteran Chris Wingert’s Off-Season Passion

Soccer is my first love. It’s the sport I grew up playing, it’s the sport I watched the most and it’s the sport that runs through my blood – my dad was a goalkeeper in the old North American Soccer League in the 1970s. Soccer has also given me the most joy. I won an MLS Cup title with Real Salt Lake in 2009, and it is by far my greatest achievement as a professional.

But I don’t live and breathe the game every second. I love basketball, too, and as a New Yorker, I’m still a rabid Knicks fan. During the MLS off-season, I’m able to get in touch with one of my other passions: tennis.

Besides Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi was probably my favorite athlete growing up. I still remember exactly where I was when he won Wimbledon in 1992, his first Grand Slam title. That got me into the sport. Growing up in Long Island was cool because the U.S. Open wasn’t far away. I used to go every year, and I even met a bunch of players. It was inspiring and humbling to watch these guys compete. Unlike soccer, tennis is just you versus another human being. I found the psychological aspect fascinating, and I loved just playing.

Unfortunately, when it came to playing competitively, I couldn’t play all my passions at one time — soccer, tennis and basketball all overlap on the high school calendar. I played some varsity tennis, but the season overlapped with soccer, so I couldn’t make all the matches. It didn’t take me long to realize my future was in soccer, but I still find the time to hit the court.

“You know that feeling where you shoot a basketball and it just swishes through the net? I get that same satisfaction from ripping a ground stroke.”

One of the things I like best about tennis is the change in dynamic. I’m glad I play soccer for a living; I love the camaraderie of having teammates with whom you go to war. But it’s my job, too. Even though I love the game, I’m not playing just for fun anymore. Tennis is that release for me where I’m playing just for the enjoyment of it. You put the pressure on yourself to compete and get after it a little bit, but it’s not like the rest of your life is riding on it — you can be within the match.

In that respect, it’s almost like a stress release for me where, even if I’m not playing that well, I’m still into it. Some of my buddies play golf and they’re so into it, it ruins their day if they have a bad round. Not me. If I have a bad game of tennis, I’m over it quickly. I just love hitting the ball. I can do that for hours and just be content. You know that feeling where you shoot a basketball and it just swishes through the net? I get that same satisfaction from ripping a ground stroke.

Tennis provides me with a decent workout — I definitely work up a sweat — but I’m not playing at a level that’s getting me into soccer shape. These guys who play at the highest level, it’s completely different — they use their body to hit every shot. They’re incredibly fit and can grind out five-setters like it’s a walk in the park. That’s not me. I’m playing two sets, hardly ever three usually because I’m just renting a court.

I play constantly during the off-season. Not just for the reasons above, but also because you don’t risk as much injury playing tennis as you do playing hoops or skiing, both of which I stay away from. But the best part for me is that I’m mostly playing tennis with my dad, who is 66 and still really good — he plays almost every day. We’re pretty even, which makes it fun to compete. The game isn’t that fun if you’re playing against someone who’s at a different level than you.

I can hit the ball harder than my dad can, but he’s more consistent — he purposely hits the ball back to me slower because it’s harder for me to create my own pace. Usually we play near my parents’ home in Long Island, which is where I spend the majority of my off-season. They have some good indoor courts there, which is nice to have during the winter. But my folks also have a condo down in Tampa, and if it’s nice outside, we’ll play on the clay courts there.

I played a lot this offseason, about twice a week. I dialed it back in January and, now that I’m in preseason, I’m not playing at all. And although I’m totally focused on the soccer season ahead, I’m missing the sport and the time with my dad. But I know that once the season is over, he’ll be waiting for me, racket in hand.

From: Babylon, New York
Pedigree: Father was a pro soccer player, grandfather was a Triple Crown-winning horse jockey
Backhand: Two-handed
Favored hand (and foot): Left
Back to soccer: Messi or Ronaldo? Messi
Most epic match: A heated game of table tennis versus my dad, which I ended up winning after he fell to the floor on the final point.

— As told to Jonah Freedman


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About the Author

Chris Wingert
Chris Wingert

Chris has played pro soccer for 15 years. An alumnus of St. John’s University, he won the Hermann Trophy (college soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman) in 2003. This doesn’t make up for a lifetime of suffering as a New York Knicks fan. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.