Category Archives: Mental Skills

Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet are very close to growing up.

David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal raced into the semifinals of the Tennis Masters Cup with straight set victories in Shanghai today. Nadal was the third person in this event to beat up on Novak Djokovic winning by the score 6-4, 6-4.

Okay, Rafa didn’t beat up on Djoko but Djoko hasn’t looked the same since he had wisdom tooth removed just before the Paris Masters event. I thought he should have gotten a $20, 000 fine for not trying hard enough in Paris. Why not I reasoned? If the ATP thinks they know when someone isn’t trying hard enough, slap the fine on everyone.

I was being facetious of course and even the ATP has come to its senses and rescinded the $20, 000 they fined Nikolay Davydenko for “not trying hard enough.”

Djoko still hasn’t recovered and either something’s wrong with him or he’s just plain pooped after two slam semifinals and a final and two Masters Series titles in a breakout year. Either way, it dampened my enthusiasm for Richard Gasquet’s opening match victory over Djoko since everyone has beaten Djoko this weak. Gasquet has subsequently lost both of his matches and today’s loss was a beatdown. He lost to Rafa 6-1, 6-1.

I was over the moon for Gasquet when he got into the final eight. Either I’m very optimistic or, more likely, very demanding because once a young player makes a breakthrough, I want him to shoot for the moon and make it. One win isn’t bad I suppose but I wanted more.

Thinking about Gasquet took me back to a 2004 article about Roger Federer in Sports Illustrated written by S.L. Price. Federer was a drama queen when he was a junior player. He’d scream at himself and throw his racket across the court when things weren’t going well. His father tried to curb his behavior by yelling at him from the stands. Federer yelled back at him.

Federer cried if he lost a match. If you watch the Bjorn Borg documentary that’s in heavy rotation on the Tennis Channel, you’ll see tears in the teenager’s eyes after losing. Borg wasn’t a drama queen but you never doubted his, or Federer’s, desire.

I don’t know if I doubt Gasquet’s desire. I just don’t see it. It’s in his game. I’d have to think hard to name another player who goes for such big shots from anywhere on the court. And though screaming and yelling are not the only expressions of deep desire, you can usually see it somewhere if you look hard enough.

I don’t remember Andre Agassi screaming and yelling but he certainly acted out. It wasn’t just the bleached hair, earrings, and ‘do rag. He was clearly trying to fit his personality into his game. He was another player who had trouble making the transition from child prodigy to self-motivated professional tennis player.

Agassi finally had to take a break from the tour and hang out in a therapist’s office before he could work out his issues. Gasquet comes from a similar place: tennis coach parents, cover of a French tennis magazine when he was nine years old, the hope of French tennis.

Andy Murray I have no doubts about. He wants it. He’s still in his immature, yelling at himself phase – the phase most players grow out of when they get to the main tour – but you can hear the desire in his yellling.

One more sign of his immaturity: he can’t keep a coach. He doesn’t agree with the coach. He knows better. Today he fired Brad Gilbert, his garrulous supercoach of the past year and a half.

Maybe Murray will be like Federer. He knows the game of tennis well enough, and his own game in particular, and doesn’t need a coach. Strategically that might be true but physically he still needs to improve and how could you not benefit from the best coach in the game even if he is a motormouth?

I think Murray will be in the final eight at the end of next year but you never know what it’ll take to push someone to his full potential.

That article about Federer describes a huge turning point in his life. His juniors coach and mentor, Peter Carter, died in a car accident when Federer was 20 years old. It marked his passage from adolescence to manhood. Federer had been a highly skilled but erratic player and now he became a mentally tough player.

The next coach Murray gets, if he gets one, will be paid out of Murray’s pocket. Until Murray fired him, Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) was paying $1.5 million a year for Gilbert’s services. Maybe that’s the way Murray wants it to be. Maybe that’s a sign of maturity.

For sure it marks Murray’s passage from LTA foster child to self-supporting tennis professional and that’s a good thing.

As for Gasquet, I’ll keep looking and see what I find.


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A very astute commenter pointed out that my statemenent about Maria Sharapova:

When you approach excellence, we expect more from you. It’s not enough to be the best at what you do, we want to be able to relate to you.

is exactly the reason that Federer is not popular in the United States. We have trouble relating to him because, the commenter said, he is “too cold, too distant, too unapproachable, too unloveable. Hardly relatable.”

She makes a very good point. Federer pales in comparison to Rafael Nadal and certainly Marcos Baghdatis and it’s much easier to relate to Andy Roddick’s current problems than it is to Federer’s calm, controlled, ceaseless dominance.

We see Roddick whipping himself and self-imploding during a loss against Igor Andreev or Marat Safin breaking rackets and we sympathize.

But I don’t find Federer distant or cold. Look, for instance, at his torrent of tears at the Australian Open victory. He comes across as a friendly, open guy on the court and in interviews. People have trouble relating to Roger because he stays calm in the face of a grand slam final while we are swearing and kicking the soda machine because it ate our money. We see Roddick whipping himself and self-imploding during a loss or Marat Safin breaking rackets and we sympathize.

It’s unfortunate in a way because Federer is one of the very few players in tennis who does exactly what all of the mental coaches tell you. Trust your game. If your game is strong enough to win the match, all is good. If you’re playing your best and the other player still beats you, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re not likely to develop new skills in the middle of the match, that takes months and years of practice, and getting upset with yourself just makes things worse.

Of course it’s much easier to be calm when you’re winning every match but it’s also that approach that helps you win. After the Nasdaq-100 win Federer said, “…I never panic, you know. I think that’s the key in the end.”

After his loss to Federer in Indian Wells, someone asked Ivan Ljubicic to name two things that set Federer apart from everyone else. His answer was, “return and movement.” My answer would be mental and movement.

Ljubicic probably has the widest range of skills next to Federer, though he’s not as comfortable at the net, and he doesn’t self implode. But he has a terrible record in five set matches and only once in the three tiebreakers against Federer at the Nasdaq-100 did he come up with a big play when he needed it – a 139 mph serve in the third tiebreaker. Still, it wasn’t enough. Federer responded with a service winner and an ace.

My co-writer, Pat Davis, pointed out that Bjorn Borg was also absurdly calm, more so than Federer. But we didn’t talk about him being boring because he had legitimate, tough rivalries. Federer doesn’t and so, since we’re not spending our time talking about the exciting finals at Indian Wells and Miami – they weren’t that exciting, we don’t have much else to do but to pick apart Federer and wish that he could offer us more because, clearly, his opponents cannot.

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Marcos Baghdatis is an entertaining guy. He smiles a lot, bounces the ball between his legs before each serve and plays with the ballgirls and ballboys. He can afford to be care free. He burst onto the scene with an incredible run at the Australian Open dropping Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian on the way to the final where he lost to Roger Federer. Federer is the only top ten player he’s ever lost too. His record is 6-0 against the rest of the top pack.

Tomas Berdych is in a different position. They might as well make a clothing line called “talented” and make players like Berdych wear it because that’s the label given to him when he is referred to. Usually when someone refers to a player as talented, it’s because they haven’t had the success expected of them. No one is calling Baghdatis talented, he’s just good.

Watching this match today, Berdych doesn’t look like a member of the fight club and Baghdatis does.

Baghdatis and Berdych played each other in the fourth round today. After Baghdatis’ 6-4, 6-1 victory, I asked him why he’s had so much success against top ten players and Berdych hasn’t. Players today won’t say anything negative about another player’s game, they won’t even given an honest assessment. That’s why we’re so happy to have Martina Hingis back, she always speaks her mind. After beating Lindsay Davenport she called out the women’s tour for being less competitive now than it used to be. But Baghdatis did say, “…tennis is a tough sport. You have to be there every day and fight every day.”

Watching this match today, Berdych doesn’t look like a member of the fight club and Baghdatis does. Baghdatis didn’t answer my question directly but if we look at the last game of the match, we can answer the question for ourselves.

Baghdatis had won the first set 6-4 and he was up 5-1 in the second. This game could be the end of the match. On the first point Berdych hit an ace. At six foot five and 200 lbs., Berdych is big enough to hit a hard flat serve.

Berdych won the second point with a backhand slice approach that crossed the court at such a sharp angle it looked like a drop shot. Berdych has touch and a good an-all court game. You can see the talent everyone talks about.

But it’s Baghdatis who lunges at a good Berdych serve to get it over the net then wins the point when Berdych sends the ball long and it’s Baghdatis who runs wide for a very good approach shot and hits an ever better passing shot.

Finally, Berdych commits the ultimate sin. On his second game point, he hits a good approach shot then lets a Baghdatis lob float over his head without a swing only to see it land in the ad court corner. How can you let a playable lob go on game point? Membership in the fight club denied.

That must have been the last straw for Berdych because followed it up with two straight unforced errors for the game and the match.

Things could be worse for Berdych. He could have gotten all the way to a grand slam win only to find himself mired in a troubling slump. It’s hard to say slump when you’re the number three player in the world but Andy Roddick was absolutely beside himself after his loss to Igor Andreev. He lost the first set, 6-4, then dropped five set points in the second set before finally taking the tiebreaker. He had Andreev down 0-40 in the first game of the third set but couldn’t cash in then lost his serve at love.

In the press conference after the match, Roddick had an absolutely memorable meltdown. Between amusing references to Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons and Miss Cleo the psychic, Roddick seemed completely mystified and more than a little pissed. When asked to explain what happened at the beginning of the third set he answered, “I don’t know, I mean it’s only – you know. I’m the only one to blame. I don’t know what the hell I did. It was just like a blur.” Roddick was so angry during the match that he got a code violation for smashing his racket. Someone asked where his frustration was coming from and Roddick understandably responded, with frustration, “It’s coming from playing like shit. I don’t know what else you want?”

Roddick is the top American player and the number three player in the world, there is a mountain of pressure on him to maintain that ranking and perform well in big tournaments. Letting off steam under that pressure is not such a bad thing if you feel better afterwards. But it’s not clear that Roddick’s problems are mental. On one of his volley attempts, his footwork was so awkward that he ended up lunging at the ball instead of hitting a smooth volley. If he plays within himself, and that means hanging out on the baseline most of the time, his true ranking might be further down the top ten.

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I feel like I’ve been in a coma and woken up in a foreign, foreign land. After a severe case of the flu, an eighteen-hour flight followed by a four-hour flight with a one-day layover in Singapore sandwiched in between, I am in south India in the city of Chennai. The American flu has morphed into an Indian version accompanied by a cough and a weak voice. I have written a note in my travel file to avoid all people, no matter how much I love them, if they are contagious with the flu while I am preparing for a flight to the other side of the world.

My news is limited to the newspaper left in my room each day. The Hindu, India’s national newspaper since 1878, reflects the chaos in the streets. Congressional members accuse other members of hatching plots to kill them, they accuse the government of tapping the phones of party leaders, and the government coalition may lose one of its party members. On the front page there is a headline saying, “Temple Priests Seek 50% of Offerings.” What is the world coming too? Pretty soon the priests will want their own labor union.

Even the sports pages are disturbing. Roger Federer has lost another match and it’s only his second tournament of the year. He should withdraw the next time he plays Tommy Haas In Australia. Haas has beaten him every time they’ve played there.

There is no more important sports event in this part of the world than a cricket match between Pakistan and India. The current version, the Allianz Test, starts on Friday. The Hindu reports that the Pakistan captain may have influenced India’s team selection by suggesting that Pakistan was installing an extra long layer of grass on the pitch. The longer grass impedes the ball making it harder to get four run hits – balls that roll over the boundary of the field without being touched. It turns out the grass is normal and the pitch may, instead, be faster than slower.

The Pakistan captain was trying to throw his opponent off, even if only the slightest bit. He wants to get any edge that he can. Let’s talk about two American sports figures with a similar point of view.

While I have been recovering from illness, I’ve been reading The Rivalry by John Taylor. It’s the story of the rivalry between basketball players Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. It’s an excellent book and I will review it later but there is an interesting comparison between Russell’s longtime Boston Celtics coach, Red Auerbach, and tennis player John McEnroe.

Auerbach made a conscious decision early in his career to bait, push and cajole referees after every single call they made against his team. He thought that if he kept on the referees throughout the entire game by demanding the correct interpretation of the rules, he might get a favorable decision at the end of the game that would make the one or two point difference that was the winning margin in the seventh game of many a championship series. Auerbach paid for it. Fans threw objects at him, flicked ashes in his face and shouted obscenities at him. But Auerbach, along with Phil Jackson, the current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, holds the record for most NBA championships with nine.

McEnroe was the same. He knew the rules very well. He knew exactly how many warnings he could take from the chair umpire before losing a point or defaulting. He wanted to make sure that he got every benefit of the doubt from a linesperson. If his ball landed so close to the line that it was hard to tell if it was in or out, he wanted to get the “in” call and win the point. Critical calls at critical times are common in sports events. McEnroe was going to kill himself doing everything else he could to win and he didn’t want doubt to influence a critical decision.

If tennis wanted to change McEnroe’s behavior, they should have changed the rules. Enforce a loss of point for fewer warnings. Default a player more easily. But they didn’t because tennis was never more popular than during McEnroe’s and Jimmy Connors’ playing days.

You can’t blame McEnroe. He was playing within the rules and getting any advantage he could. You can expect that from an athlete with an extreme desire to win.

I haven’t spent all my time in the hotel here. By day I go to classes at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and before I got the Indian version of the flu, I made it to the only ATP championship in India – the Chennai Open. I’ll report on that as soon as possible.

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Instead of the usual highlights of last year and predictions for the next year, we are in the second part of a two-part series that looks at the unavoidable uncertainties in life. We’ve already established that sports experts are no better at making predictions than a well-informed fan, today we’ll look at the roll of luck.

Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy were the cornerstones of the early Boston Celtics basketball championship teams. Auerbach won nine NBA championships – only Phil Jackson has won as many and he had the best NBA player of all time, Michael Jordan. Yet Auerbach, Russell and Cousy all landed in Boston with more than a touch of luck.

…people are unwilling to admit how big a role luck plays in life.

Auerbach managed to get one scholarship offer coming out of high school and that was from a junior college. In a scrimmage between his junior college team and George Washington College, the George Washington coach noticed Auerbach’s toughness and gave him a scholarship. Otherwise Auerbach would likely have been a career high school coach.

Russell was an awkward high school player with very little offense, but an alumnus from the University of San Francisco saw Russell score 14 points in his last high school game and the University gave Russell his only scholarship offer. By the time the offer arrived, Russell had already started work at the San Franscisco Naval Shipyard. In another stroke of luck, Russell’s roommate at USF was K.C. Jones, his future teammate on the Celtics.

Cousy was a star at Holy Cross College near Boston. He led the team to an NCAA championship and assumed that the Celtics would draft him, but Auerbach thought he was more flashy than effective so Cousy was drafted by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. When the Chicago Stags folded, the Blackhawks had to give up Cousy in return for acquiring a Stags player. Including Cousy, that left three players who were still unclaimed. The commissioner of the league was so tired of the fighting over Tri-Cities star , Max Zaslovsky, that he put three pieces of paper in a hat with the names of the players and let the fighting teams draw from the hat. The owner of the Boston Celtics picked second and, you guessed it, Cousy became a Boston Celtic. You can read about this in John Taylor’s excellent new book, The Rivalry: Bill Rusell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball.

Woody Allen has no illusions about luck. In his new movie, Match Point, the opening scene shows a tennis ball move slowly back and forth in one direction then another before ticking the tape, lingering in the air, then finally floating over the net. Early in the film, the main character, Chris Wilton, a professional tennis player who has just retired from the tour, notes that people are unwilling to admit how big a role luck plays in life.

It’s not that Allen doesn’t believe in hard work, Allen is one of the hardest working filmmakers alive, he’s made 35 movies in the last 39 years. Isn’t that a record of some sort? Wilton is under no illusions either. He does whatever is necessary to ingratiate his way into the role of son-in-law in a very rich London family. Being born into a rich family is a form of luck after all and there’s no reason he shouldn’t share in it, even if he doesn’t love his wife.

There are those who think that God has a plan for us if we could just figure out what it is and, at the other end of the spectrum, those who think we are born with a clean slate and it’s up to us to make our way – there is no higher authority, only morals that we agree upon. At the end of the spectrum that thinks there is no higher authority, you’ll find an egotistical nihilist or two. If there is no higher authority, and if, as happens in Match Point, guilt goes unpunished due to a bit of luck, then why bother considering anyone else’s needs but your own? At one point in the film, Wilton goes to bed with a paperback Dostoevsky novel – Crime and Punishment is the obvious reference. When his marriage is threatened, Wilton decides that he must protect his gains at any cost. When faced with the fallout of his actions, he refers to one of the casualties as “collateral damage.”

Andy Roddick has been the recipient of bad luck the past two U.S. Opens.

Allen appears in many of his films and even when he doesn’t, one of his actors might just as well be a stand-in for him. At least two film reviewers have noted that Allen doesn’t have a surrogate in Match Point but I disagree. Allen falls near the nihilist end of the spectrum and though he’s nowhere near as soulless as Wilton, Allen has been known to do what he wants regardless of the consequences. He must have known how devastating it would be to his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s family if he started a sexual relationship with her adopted daughter, but he did it anyway.

Just like the nature versus nurture debate – is our personality formed by our surroundings or do we arrive with certain personality traits? – the debate between those that think there is a grand plan and those that don’t has a boring answer: the truth is somewhere in between. Even if there is a higher authority, there’s still free will. If there is no higher authority, well, you are still responsible for your actions.

So where does luck come in? The higher the stakes, the more important its role can be. Roger Federer will beat Davide Nalbandian in a tennis match four out of five times, maybe five out of five times. But in the year-end Masters Cup final, Nalbandian beat Federer because Federer had injured his foot and hadn’t played for the previous six weeks.

You can’t win a grand slam without at least a bit of luck. Andre Agassi needed two opportune rain delays to change the momentum in matches that he was losing, including one in the final, to win the 1999 French Open. Andy Roddick has been the recipient of bad luck the past two U.S. Opens. In 2004, he lost in the quarterfinals to Joachim Johansson, who played the match of his life then lost easily in the next round. In 2005, Gilles Muller played the match of his life to beat Roddick in the first round before coming back to earth and badly losing his next match.

Still, there’s a reason that Federer has won five slams in two years and there’s reason to think that the years spent developing mental and physical skills are a good investment. Most of the time by far, the better player will win.

I once had a wonderful roommate named Lenor. When I’d get dressed up to go out to a party she’d say, “Good luck, ” meaning good luck scoring at the party. As I walked out the door I’d yell back, “Luck and skill, baby, it takes luck and skill.”

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