An Unpredictable Journey

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 /by

My eyes open, it’s morning.

I remember what happened yesterday. Under the covers, I try to move the knee. Ow. It hurts worse today. My first step out of bed confirms it: I’m officially injured.

The day before, it felt fine, but I had to rush from tennis to a meeting and didn’t have time to stretch. I arrived at the office, stepped out of the car and the knee was tight, like it had rusted over on just a quick drive from the courts. And it hurt. I iced it during the day and went to bed at night, hoping a good night’s sleep would help. It didn’t. So now, for the first time ever, I have to shut tennis down completely.

After a month, a light jog still hurts. I try three months of five-times-a-week rehab and every supplement and goo imaginable, from shark’s fin on down. Nothing helps. So I go to the doctor and get an MRI. He tells me it’s a torn meniscus that likely needs surgery. He draws that conclusion quickly and casually, which rankles me. I say I’ll think about it.

I’ll do anything to avoid an operation. Ten months earlier, I lost my dad after a tragic series of events that took place in the hospital. He went for a heart-valve replacement, one of the safer types of heart surgery there is, and suffered a major stroke—then days later, after they adjusted his medication, another. Soon after, left unattended in the recovery ward, he went into cardiac arrest when phlegm clogged his trachea tube. He never left the hospital.

Searching for a way to fix it myself, I consult my new-agey friend Alexis, who suggests I try mega-doses of colostrum powder, a super-protein found in the milk that mammals (but what’s sold is from cows) produce just after giving birth. She says it will “restart” the healing process in the same way we restart computers to help them fix themselves. It sounds nuts but she says she can’t explain it better. After some research, I discover no one claims what she does, but it can’t hurt. She’s always struck me as smart and a bit of a good witch.

Alexis is against surgery, too, saying if something valuable (i.e. a meniscus) is torn, you don’t cut it away, you sew it. Simple, logical, yet the opposite of what doctors tell you.

After three weeks of colostrum, remarkably, the knee begins to feel much better. The doctor was wrong; I love it. Then, I go to a previously scheduled visit to a sports medicine specialist. She knows about colostrum but says she has something better. We switch course to her blend of glucosamine and chondroiton. I’m like a horse at the starting gate, chomping at the bit, ready to pick up my racquet again.

Two weeks later, in a spin class, I feel a sharp stab as something gives in the knee. I hobble out, crushed. After that, it weakens, stiffens and often hurts. Over time, it gets worse. I get tired just from walking and develop a limp. I can’t see starting over with colostrum, though I wonder what would have happened if I’d stuck with it and never changed course. The choice becomes stark: Undergo a surgery on the heels of what happened with my dad or give up my favorite sport.

***

I came to competitive tennis late. I had a brief flirtation as a kid—I’m righty but batted lefty in baseball, which translated into a solid two-handed backhand. At practice, I beat some ranked players, but in the dozen or so USTA 14-and-under tournaments I entered, I lost first round every time. Soon, other teenage pursuits beckoned. Rock & roll was a lot cooler than getting yelled at by Mr. A, my ninth-grade coach, so I traded my Jack Kramer for an electric guitar and grew out my hair. Hey, it was the ’70s.

In college, I joined a band and we did pretty well, until we moved to L.A. and struggled. Broke, I tried movies, apprenticing for nine years before finally becoming a producer. The first two movies I worked on went great, too, Rushmore then The Sixth Sense, for which I received an Oscar nomination.

At the awards, the possibility of having to go up on stage to make the speech terrified me. I felt 13, I was back at the Port Washington Classic, before a big match. I don’t know why professional success hadn’t resolved the old questions those tournaments raised. What did all the losses mean? In the big moment, why didn’t I thrive and play to my potential? It turned out to be American Beauty’s night, I was spared the test, and though it sounds odd, the relief really did outweigh the disappointment.

The next film, Unbreakable, shot in Philadelphia, and for fitness, I picked tennis back up. It’s a great sport for the road—find a local pro in any city, easy. My game felt better now, too. With less on the line, I went for it more. On my biggest winners, my teacher there Eric Riley would get excited and sing, “Mendel—rhymes with Lendl!” I even entered a USTA tournament, 35-and-overs. Lost first round.

But the love of the game was back, this time for good. Iremember telling my brother Dick about it—how there’s never a bad day. No matter what’s going on off the court, win, lose, play well or awful, tennis is always great. I love just being out there and always learning, too, knowing there are new breakthroughs in front of me. I’m lucky, Dick said, to have an activity so dependably joyful. He wished he had one.

After wrapping my next film, The Royal Tenenbaums, I was wiped. I needed a break from the crazy hours and stress and living out of a suitcase. It’d been 15 years with almost no vacation. So I did the math on taking a year off—my lifestyle was modest enough that I could make it work as long as I went right back to work.

Inspired by Dave Rineberg’s book about the development of the Williams sisters, I decided to spend it devoting myself full-time to tennis. It was the opportunity every player dreams of and I felt blessed to have it.

I began by looking for a coach. I talked to a few, including Ronald Agenor, a Haitian who was fresh off the Tour. He was 3-0 against Agassi and had gotten to No. 20. He barely spoke. When we hit, he brought me to net and whacked balls at me so hard for such a long time, my arm went numb. Clearly, he was auditioning me, not the other way around. He seemed serious, if not mean. But unlike Mr. A. from ninth grade, this time, I loved it.

It turns out Ronald isn’t mean; we had a blast. Training full-time was great—peaks, valleys, laughs, you name it. Six months in, I entered a USTA over-35 tournament and won easily, one and one, or as Ronald called it, breadsticks. My first ever victory, sweet. The monkey was off my back. I climbed to No. 18 in SoCal in my age group and got to play in the Hard Court Nationals. I was living the dream, eating, sleeping and breathing tennis.

When the year ended, I went back to my job but kept playing. Without the conditioning and with more work on my mind, I first hurt the knee. But with good warm up and cooldown, it was fine for two years. Then came the day I didn’t stretch, the day it didn’t get better and this whole saga began.

***

Surgery is frightening. Even in the best case, there’ll be crutches, rehab, plus I’m diving into a new movie, shooting out of the country soon. Not a convenient time to have my leg cut open. There’s never a good time. But I miss tennis. Some might call it a hobby, but for me, it’s more. And I’m too young to be limping around for the foreseeable future.

I decide to bite the bullet.

Wearing open-back hospital PJs is humiliating. Having an IV in my arm isn’t pleasant, either. They shave my knees and mark the left one NO and the right one YES with a Sharpie to ensure no mistakes are made while I’m out on the table. Comforting. Then, an endless wait. It gives you time to think. I earnestly vow to live healthy and do whatever necessary to avoid ever having to return to a hospital, except to have kids. My friend Lisa helps me pass the time. Finally, they come. I lay back on the gurney, look up at the ceiling, banks of fluorescent lights going by as they wheel me toward surgery.

My eyes open again, this time in a hospital room. There’s a bandage on my knee. The doctor comes and shows me photos from the arthroscope: Gruesome. There it is in black and white: torn meniscus, MCL band and cartilage, like a Jackson Pollock painting. Clearly, shark’s fin wasn’t going to cure that. I try to stand. Strangely, I can already put weight on it. He says 10 weeks of physical 

therapy and I’ll be good as new. I crutch it to the car and tell Lisa maybe this won’t be so bad.

The walls of CATZ Physical Therapy Institute in Pasadena are lined with photos of athletes they’ve helped—David Beckham, Oscar De La Hoya, Misty May-Treanor. I go three days a week plus another for aquatic therapy. I love it. Heat wraps, ultrasound, stim machines. After a year of not being able to do much, I’m at it again. Pumping iron. Footwork drills. Side by side with other athletes, some more seriously injured, we’re working our way back. My athletic side is coming out of cold storage.

But after six weeks, my knee’s still very swollen. I’m behind schedule. I ask the surgeon to take a look, but he says, no, it’s normal, I’ll be running inside of a month. The call ends fast, he’s done with me, treats me like a wimp, I’m off his assembly line.

Two weeks later, my knee still swollen, my therapist A.G. suggests I jog my footwork drill, an indoor slalom. Jog? Really? I gingerly maneuver around cones, waiting for pain to come. It doesn’t, so I pick up the pace a little. Still feels good. After a year on the sidelines, doing this pain-free feels like flying. Two weeks later, I graduate to the treadmill, alternating a minute jogging with a minute walking. It’s fine. The surgeon sloughed me off but he was right—I hear my racquets calling.. . .

The first session on court, I don’t move much, but man, it’s good to be back. The smell of the balls, the simplicity of bounce, hit, bounce and hit. The familiar vibration through wrist and arm. And lo, the sound of a well-struck ball.

The next week, I try more movement, but the leg just doesn’t want to go. It drags behind, unwilling. A.G. tries increasing the jogging, too, but my knee starts hurting again, as much as before surgery. It hurts all week, then another. I think, oh no, it didn’t work. We’re three months after surgery and right back where we started. I’m off to Europe to do a new film, too. I feel duped. They sell you on the operation, and when it doesn’t take, if you even get the doctor on the phone, he’ll throw up his hands and shrug, “What do you want me to say? It usually works.”

In London, there’s no time for therapy; we’re up at 5 a.m. and work deep most nights. I keep up the exercises but the treadmill still causes too much pain. It’s a depressing month there, then we head for Italy to go shoot. My knee isn’t improving but at least the food is.

There, one day after work, I try a jog on the beach at sunset. Worst case, it’ll be a pretty walk. I start jogging and feel surprisingly OK, so I keep going. I keep feeling OK, so I keep going. And going. I end up running 40 minutes pain-free. Amazing. I feel great the next day, too.

Just like that, within two weeks, I’m out on the red dirt, trading blows with a local, going for it again, feeling free.

People who’ve had surgery already know the lessons I learned. Recovery takes longer than you expect. Progress isn’t linear, it accelerates and stalls at its own pace. Even when you do the work, and you have to, it’s an unpredictable journey and despite all the support around you, a solitary one. It’s your body on the line, no one else’s. You have to fight for it with all the love and passion it deserves and then just hope for the best. For me, it worked out. I’m one of the lucky ones.

In retrospect, I’m grateful for the injury. It forced me to face modern medicine again, reinforcing the tenets of good decision-making—going for something positive rather than running away from fear. I’m also learning how to prepare off the court—conditioning, recovery, massage, sleep, nutrition, not just for tennis but for life.

Now, I’m back doing what I love, working on movies—we even got some fun doubles into Bridesmaids—and on days off, heading to the courts, going all-out on equally good knees, feeling blessed, reveling in what my brother admired, what for me is the special joy that only tennis brings.


Barry Mendel is two-time Oscar-nominated film producer whose credits include Rushmore, The Sixth Sense, The Royal Tenenbaums, Munich and Bridesmaids.

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