After the first two sets the other night during the Blake-Agassi thriller, I was nearly ready to turn off the TV. Andre was being overpowered, and I did not want to see his demise. Lo and behold, the Aged One mounts a comeback. Both players carried it right down to the wire, in a thrilling fifth set tiebreak. When people say, as they are already, that this is one of the greatest matches ever played at the Open, what they are also implying is that no one choked in this match. Both players rose to the occasion and all their best stuff came out. They both laid it all out there on that court. This is why it will be remembered as a great match.
As Andre said later, “Two guys need to play well.”
We always feel good about matches when we know both guys have played their best. We hate to see someone win because the other player has screwed up. Even if it’s Lleyton Hewitt. Tennis gets great when both sides show perfection. We feel rewarded by that. We have gotten our money’s worth.
Great matches almost always suggest that both players rise to the occasion. Without choking. Why do some players pull it out and others go right into the can? Dealing with choking should be one of the main things that coaches teach about tennis. Right up there with two-handed backhands, or one-handed. Or working on the serve. But people seem reticent to discuss it. It’s a murky, complicated thing, let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. We are manly men, after all. And ballsy women too. Each player has to wrestle with it in his own way. You do it on your own time behind closed doors. Like masturbation and toiletry functions, we presume.
Part of athletes’ fascination with the performance enhancers is based on this desire to avoid the dreaded choke. If we can pump ourselves up to superhuman levels of muscularity, maybe that will protect us, and get us through the tough matches. We won’t have to worry about choking.
Yet athletes are better conditioned than ever before, they are physically as prepared as they will ever be. Still, matches get blown. Something else enters into the equation here. The elusive edge that so many athletes are seeking comes, not from the physical realm, but the mental.
Where does choking get its power from? It’s fear talking to a player, big time. You don’t think inside that you can pull it off. You can feel your nerves building, until you think they are going to run away with you. Tennis is like an obstacle course at times. Many things can come along to distract a player, often at key moments. Often even before you hit the court. Anastasia Myskina’s mother has been ill this season, and it has been mentioned as a cause of her less than excellent year. She could not let it go when she walked onto the court. Your opponent takes a long injury timeout, as Mary Pierce did today during her semifinal match with Elena Dementieva. Certainly the rules allow for it, but it clearly threw a wrench into Elena’s plans for a win. She let it get to her. Or your opponent serves at an abominably slow pace. Or the wind has just picked up, and it’s your turn to serve. Or that Dominik Hrbaty guy has shown up again with another one of his fantastically sculpted new jersies, and if that won’t drive you around the bend, you are probably dead already. The list of distractions goes on and on, and those distractions get under the skin and make you uptight about everything going on.
Fear can also appear in more subtle forms. You have arrived at a key point in the match, your opponent is getting the best of you. You know to counter this that you have to, for instance, come into net more. But basically you’re a baseliner. Normally you come to net once every year. Now you have to step it up, even though it is not your natural style. Can you mentally handle this, or will you muff your chance? David Nalbandian against Roger Federer the other day is a good example of this. Nalbandian, a natural baseliner, looked atrocious at the net in a straight set loss.
All these things have to be worked through. Not choking means you play through all the distractions, you distill it down to the bare moment itself, and in that moment you try to win only one point at a time. You develop a really good case of Tunnel Vision. The other day, Jim Courier commented on this during the Robby Ginepri-Guillermo Coria match. When asked what the guys were feeling on court when the match was on the line, he replied, “This is all about fear.” And, he implied, who will be the better man that day at dealing with his fear.
Mentally the way to deal with fear is, firstly, to acknowledge that you have it. Feel it. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug. Let your body choke a little, so you don’t have to choke a lot. Experience the sensations. Then it is easier to let go. A tense physique is not going to be a good conduit for hitting accurate shots. These little awarenesses can help you relax a bit, you may even start to flow with your shots the way Roger Federer does. You feel like you may even be the ruler of your domain on this day. Hell, tennis may be a wonderful sport after all.
Andre Agassi had another thought on this after his match with James Blake. “It’s about just authentic competition, just getting out there and having respect for the other person, and letting it fly, and letting it be just about the tennis.”
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