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Theology leads to togetherness for Stanford tennis team

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–What are some of the secrets behind a team that manages to rise to the top? What can motivate a team, for example, to win 75 consecutive contests at home? What can drive a group of athletes to such a level of excellence?

David Martin is more than qualified to speak. He excels in both singles and doubles for the Stanford University men’s tennis team. The junior from Tulsa, Okla., puts it this way.

“My walk with Christ helps me keep a good perspective on the game of tennis,” Martin said. “Although I take it very seriously, it is just a game, and there is a greater battle out there being fought between good and evil. I would like to think that this mentality rubs off on the team, which brings us closer. Also, personally, I have had a few theological discussions on the team with some of the other guys, and while we differ often, the talks bring us closer.”

Martin was blessed to grow up in a Christian home.

“I had a rich spiritual heritage, especially on my mother’s side of the family, which was very active in Christian ministry,” he said. “I remember accepting Jesus into my life at the age of seven in Vacation Bible School at my church, but I was too young to understand the implications of that decision. As I grew older, my mind began to mature and become more inquisitive and interested in the world around me. I began to question exactly why I would follow this faith.

“I also dealt with the typical issues that all people in junior high and high school deal with. I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a stereotype of a bad person, but I had my struggles with pornography, occasional drinking, relationships with girls and things of that nature. Though I had begun to be quite successful on the international tennis scene by winning several prestigious tournaments that did not provide the answers to the deep issues in life that were plaguing me. Nor had my relationships with girls, success in the classroom and any form of entertainment I had tried been ultimately satisfying.”

Martin’s search for meaning and fulfillment led him to an understanding of the total depravity of man. “I came to realize in my now more mature mind that indeed I was sinful, as all individuals are, and I had no control over this. It finally registered with me that God wants nothing more than to love me and to develop a relationship with me. He had sent His only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for me to forgive my sins and to open up the pathway to make a personal relationship with Him possible. All I had to do was to accept this and invite Christ into my life, which I did again.”

The difference between what happened to David at age 7 and what happened to him at this stage of life can be explained by the term “reasoned decision.” The second time marked the beginning of his relationship with Christ, in the sense that it involved authentic repentance. He felt like a doubles player who cracks off a crisp, angled volley to win the first point. Christianity, which can seem so complex, now became as clear as 15-love.

“The Christian life is so simple as I understand it now,” Martin said.
“God wants nothing more than to know me, to walk with me, and to reveal Himself to me. Sometimes I feel that He is absent when I get so immersed in my closed world of studying and playing tennis that I lose sight of Him. I forget that He has a purpose for me in all that I do.

“He has placed me here by none of my own doing and has something in store for me. In order to know what that is, I need to continue to get to know Him better and better and spend time with Him on a regular basis, which I still struggle to do.”

To make the distinction between reading the Bible and studying the Bible is like a doubles team going from 15-love to 30-love. The chances of success in any one individual tennis game go up when that happens, and this is what Martin is starting to experience at Stanford. He is studying the Bible.

“I had always operated under the premise that if you know the fundamentals of the faith, you will be OK, but this study has reinforced the necessity of regularly immersing myself in the Scriptures,” the tennis player said. “The more time we spend with God in His Word, praying, or learning about Him, the better we get to know and understand Him, and the more purpose we will feel in the world. Granted, we will never come close to understanding the depth of God, but it is the pursuit of God that brings us closer to Him.”

The bottom line for Martin is fundamentals. In tennis terminology, one might say that he has worked on the mechanics of both his forehand and backhand strokes, to the point where he can perform quite well on any given day as a Stanford tennis player, as an integral part of the No. 1-ranked tennis program in America. His forehand, so to speak, is regular attendance at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, which meets on campus. His backhand is a mentoring relationship with Jim Stump, who teaches Martin and other Stanford athletes for an hour at a time each week.

“By applying my increased knowledge of God to life situations that confront me, my faith has deepened tremendously,” Martin said. “Although there are many temptations to spend all my time pursuing other things that get my focus off my relationship with God, I know His desire is for us to get to know each other better. That is ultimately where true peace and satisfaction is found.”
Palmeri is a member of North Pointe Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.

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  • Allen Palmeri