The psychology of sports forms the basis for a brief commentary on the evolving Roland Garros tournament, currently lodged between the second and third rounds at the end of Wednesday’s play in Paris. The events of the past two days have enabled tennis observers to appreciate the inner game of the sport, the test between the ears that gives rise to such engrossing drama even when the raw level of play leaves something to be desired.
Plenty of coaches and sports psychologists have drawn from Timothy Gallwey’s seminal 1974 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, to impart to athletes the importance of acquiring the right frame of mind. It is obvious that the mind matters so much in tennis, a solo-flyer sport that demands the ability to handle a lot of loneliness. At the majors, the women don’t receive coaching during changeovers; every match at a major – for the men and the women – is a true test of the individual’s ability to solve problems on the fly.
Yet, for all the ways in which the primacy of mental toughness is so evident at a major, there’s one specific way in which the mind can get overlooked.
Yes, it’s important to be able to fight back when trailing, to persevere when things aren’t going your way. Yes, it’s important to be able to hit a clutch serve when facing a break-and-set point at 30-40, 4-5, in the third set of a match that is tied at one set apiece. Yes, it is important to deliver the goods at 5-all in a tiebreaker or at deuce in the 12th game of a set. However, those situations – as important as they are – don’t quite fit into the one situation that trips up so many players: Arriving at a midpoint in a set or tiebreaker when everything is going right and a once-unlikely victory becomes possible.
If you study a major tennis tournament closely enough, you’ll quickly realize how often this specific problem ambushes so many talented tennis professionals. Ernests Gulbis led Gael Monfils 3-2 in the second set in Wednesday’s featured second-round match at Court Philippe Chatrier. Gulbis busted out his best and most untouchable heaven-kissed tennis to break for a 3-2 lead, having already taken the first set in a tiebreaker. The flow of the match was headed in Gulbis’s direction.
Gulbis promptly lost serve for 3-all, and then donated a bunch of errors when serving at 4-5 to hand Monfils the second set, 6-4. The third set was glorious, but when Monfils got a lucky get-out-of-jail net cord to survive a break point at 5-all, he rode that bit of fortune to a tiebreaker win and a four-set triumph a short time later.
Understand this about Gulbis: He loses so many matches not merely in exasperating fashion, but after taking the first set. Gulbis can oh-so-easily find an exalted level of tennis, but his career has been such a study in underachievement precisely because Gulbis can’t stay on the mountain very long. It is a mental skill, not just a physical one, to remain locked in — no, not to the point where you hit ridiculous winners again and again, but to the point that consistency becomes built into performance so that the muscle memory becomes reliable.
Gulbis is perhaps the most prominent example on the ATP side of a gifted tennis player who allows himself to think about how well he’s doing… which opens the gateway for doubt to creep in as soon as a bad shot flies off the racquet. Svetlana Kuznetsova is the prime example of this dynamic on the WTA Tour. When a player should be relishing the ability to play well, the Gulbises and Kuznetsovas worry when it’s all going to fall apart — not consciously, but subconsciously, and certainly enough to hijack peak performance.
Another example of this counterintuitive dynamic — playing well until leading, when the prospect of victory becomes too much to bear — was in evidence in Wednesday’s second-round match between Roger Federer’s next Roland Garros opponent, Julien Benneteau, and Tobias Kamke. Benneteau, who – remember – has not won an ATP singles title in his career, led by two sets against an inferior opponent. The thought of winning (not losing) paralyzed the Frenchman, who proceeded to drop 10 straight games and fall behind 2-0 in the fifth. The fear of success, not the fear of failure, is the overlooked dimension of frailty in professional tennis, and Benneteau succumbed to it.
Fortunately for him, so did Kamke.
The German had little reason to believe for most of the match that victory was likely his. After his third-set escape, he had a right to expect a fifth set, but it was only at 2-0 in the fifth that the finish line appeared.
Naturally, that’s when Kamke disappeared.
It’s not as though the end of this match was dramatic. Benneteau held at love when serving for the match at 5-4. The end came not with a bang, but a whimper. It was at 2-0 in the fifth when Kamke lost hold of the proceedings. He lost this match in the early and middle stages of a set, not its endpoint. Gulbis, when blowing the 3-2 break lead in the second set – following one of his best stretches of performance in the match – gave Monfils the opening the Frenchman needed.
Head games are such a central part of tennis. “Ahead games” — at 3-2 or 2-0 in a set — show why those head games matter so much. Life seems too good to be true for a great number of tennis players only because they fear success too much.
Welcome to the beginning of All I Need Is A Picket Fence’s coverage of the 2013 Roland Garros tournament in Paris.
Doots, Le Foundress of Le Fence, is living “Le Life” in the City of Light. She’s attending the tournament in person and will have all sorts of tales to tell. You’ll get pictures and on-scene observations of the experience of attending Roland Garros, Doots’s final leg as part of her now-completed “Fan Slam.” She’ll tell you all about it very soon.
(Hey, wait a minute — there was this Swiss guy who completed a Grand Slam in Paris as well, and a Russian woman who did the same thing last year. Doots is following in the footsteps of the two tennis players she primarily blogs about. Paris is a city made for blending life and art, dreams and reality. Feel the poetry, Picket Fencers. Feel the poetry.)
While we wait for Doots, let’s get our Roland Garros coverage off the ground by overviewing the first two days of competition. Many unremarkable things have happened:
On the WTA side, Nadia Petrova suffered a stomach-punch, come-from-ahead loss. Serena Williams threw down the proverbial hammer. Sorana Cirstea and Ana Ivanovic took their fans through an all-too-typical emotional rollercoaster. Julia Goerges continued to struggle.
On the ATP side, it wasn’t quite business as usual — not to the same extent as the WTA. Lleyton Hewitt fought valiantly and lost in five sets. Gilles Simon played a long, drawn-out, and exasperating match (against Hewitt). Other than those familiar occurrences, the men threw a lot of curveballs at tennis observers. American men (yes, PLURAL) actually WON first-round matches. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won without fuss or drama, and Richard Gasquet did the same. No French absurdist theater at Roland Garros — not yet.
You want to know how shocking the first two days of men’s competition have been in Paris? ROBIN HAASE won a tiebreaker! That says it all, does it not?
“NOBODY BEATS ROBIN HAASE 18 TIEBREAKERS IN A ROW!” — Vitas Gerulaitis, probably
The women’s tournament has given us some precious gems and poignant moments from two days of play: Venus Williams emptied herself on Court Suzanne Lenglen, giving everything to tennis — just as she has throughout her distinguished career — only to fall short against Urszula Radwanska, whose lobs and mixed-pace shots ultimately frustrated Venus in a 3-hour, 19-minute scrap of appreciable quality.
Virginie Razzano, who — remember — lost her fiance two years ago, earned a second-round paycheck with the possibility of a third-round prize. Razzano has suffered shattering, devastating grief… and lived to find sustenance from sport. The first days of a tennis major are special because they give the likes of Virginie Razzano a day — and a payday — in the sun, validating many years of perseverance. Razzano will make almost $53,000 U.S. even if she loses her round-of-64 match. That take-home pay will cover a lot of expenses, justifying the decision to continue playing in the shadows of loss and loneliness. The greats play for championships, but many players at the majors are playing for that big infusion of prize money in the first week of the tournament… and for the love of a sport that has meant so much to their lives.
With that general recap in the books, let’s move to our featured selection from the first two days of Roland Garros 2013, a quick reflection on the difference between the elites and the pretenders in the sport.
In one corner stands Rafael Nadal, the best male clay-court tennis player of all time. In another corner stands Tomas Berdych, a player with evident major-championship talent but only one appearance in a major final and only three semifinal showings. The matches these two men played on Monday in Paris revealed so much about their careers.
With Nadal, the obvious narrative was nevertheless the narrative that genuinely applied to his first-round encounter with Daniel Brands. Nadal absorbed an opponent’s best punch for nearly two full sets and found himself down 3-0 in the second-set tiebreaker, already trailing by a set. This was not about Nadal failing to perform; Nadal was staring at the possibility of a two-set deficit because Brands adopted and executed the distinctly Rosolian approach of going for low-margin shots at every turn… and usually making them. Brands played like a man possessed, but as soon as a second-serve return missed at 3-0 and a nervous chipped approach missed at 3-2, Brands lost confidence. Nadal, tied at 4-all in the breaker, pounced on short balls in the last three points, clearly relishing not only the challenge he was given, but his ability to meet said challenge.
There is something to be said for the claim that the best competitors are the ones who really are joyful — not just free from fear, but filled with song — in the face of tense and decisive hinge-point moments. Mindsets make the men and women who surmount obstacles and grow bigger when the stakes become higher. Nadal didn’t play all that well for much of this day, but when the moment mattered the most, he became the big dog in the arena. Brands hit so many big-league shots, but he couldn’t call forth the thunder when he really needed it, when he could have gained a two-set lead and — later — when he was on the verge of breaking back to even the third set at 4-all. This is how great players survive upset bids, and it’s how people with Daniel Brands’s level of ballstriking ability wake up at age 25 and realize how much money they’ve left on the table in their professional careers.
With Berdych, the Nadalian dynamic was inverted — as it so often has been for the Czech in his career — on Monday against Gael Monfils.
You will recall that in the 2012 Australian Open, Berdych was on the verge of taking a two-set lead over Nadal in the quarterfinals, but couldn’t close the sale. Berdych has suffered that kind of loss so many times in his ATP existence. In this match against Monfils, Berdych faced a talented opponent who was performing well and playing in his home country. Berdych received a brutal draw at this tournament and had to play what amounted to a “road match” in round one. Losing here — given the way Monfils played on Monday — was not a great sin in itself. What will linger for Berdych is that, in a clean inversion of the Nadal pattern, Berdych played well until those moments when he really needed to elevate his game.
Through 4-all in the first-set tiebreaker, Berdych had competed really well. Monfils came out of the blocks with force and fury, lashing his crosscourt forehand and generating substantial depth on his groundstrokes. Monfils’s past year on the ATP Tour has been ravaged by injuries, uncertainty, and an inability to make a major mark on men’s tennis, but the Monfils who shoved around Berdych for much of the first set is the player who made the 2008 Roland Garros semifinals and has displayed the kind of ability commensurate with a top-10 player. Berdych stood up to Monfils and had given nothing away when 4-all arrived in the first-set breaker.
Then, however, Berdych wilted. An inside-out crosscourt forehand — poorly chosen and poorly executed — gave Monfils a crucial piece of leverage. Two more errors a few moments later handed Monfils the first set. Berdych erased a two-set deficit and very nearly pulled out the match in the fifth, but that first-set failure made Berdych’s mountain that much tougher to scale. Whereas the Nadals of the world struggle for much of the day but then succeed in defining situations, the reality of tennis life takes a 180-degree turn for the Berdyches of the sport.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for Doots’s dispatches and more Fencing as the tournament of the terre battue rolls along in Paris.