This article was first published in the January 2014 edition of Australian Tennis Magazine.
The ability to channel your emotions during the heat of battle has long been a trait that separates the great from the good in the tennis world. In his early days on the pro tour, Andy Murray was well known for his negativity on court. Like many artists, Murray can be an obsessive perfectionist and too often he would become overwhelmed with frustration at his inability to always reach the stratospheres he demanded of himself.
Under the guidance of Ivan Lendl, Murray slowly replaced the surly, snarling image of his teenage years with a more resolute focus as he made the transition from contender to champion. By cutting out those lulls in his concentration, he’s been able to beat Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer on the biggest stages of them all.
The amount of emotion a player shows on the court really varies between individuals. While Federer is almost always understated, except at the most crucial moments, Rafael Nadal won legions of fans in his youth with his energetic fist-pumping.
“I don’t think anyone deliberately sets out to control how they appear on the court,” says Thomas Enqvist, a finalist at Australian Open 1999.
“I think more than anything, it gives you an insight into the different characters. If you’re an impulsive person then you tend to show that on the tennis court. I’m not too impulsive, I don’t tend to stress too much about things and that kind of showed during my career. You couldn’t really tell how I was feeling during a match.”
But personalities can change as a player matures. The mental side of tennis is more important than ever in this most competitive of eras and it’s one of the reasons why some players are peaking in their late twenties to early thirties.
David Ferrer has long been known as one of the toughest competitors on tour but that fierce work ethic and iron will to win hasn’t always been a hallmark of his game. The teenage Ferrer was a tempestuous character whose on-court tantrums drove long-time coach Javier Piles to distraction.
“I was a very angry player,” Ferrer remembers. “I think I was maybe 16, 17 years old and one morning, I was very frustrated and didn’t want to practise. My coach tried to talk to me and then he locked me in a small locker room with some bread and water. And he said ‘Ok, if you don’t want to practise then you have to stay here because you are a worker and you must learn to work. Otherwise, you have to stay here for a few hours. I sat there and thought about everything for maybe two hours and after that my coach unlocked the door.”
Over time, Ferrer would learn how to use that inner fire to his advantage but for a while during his youth, he was in danger of squandering his talent.
“This is history now,” he says laughing. “But when you’re young, it’s difficult because you don’t have any experience. Now I know that I have to control my frustration in practise and matches but as a teenager it’s not always easy to stay focused and disciplined so you need your coach to be strong to keep you on track.”
His compatriot Nicolas Almagro has long been equally hot-headed and as a junior, his volcanic temper was forever on the verge of boiling over. However unlike Ferrer, Almagro is still full of emotion on court but he’s simply learnt to accept the way he is.
“I have a lot of character and in the past I’ve done many things on court that I’m not proud of but they’re in the past. It’s part of my personality. John McEnroe had a temper but that helped him become one of the best players ever. I’m happy with myself right now and I think there are two different Nicos, the devil and the angel. When I’m playing, that Nico is really competitive. He wants to win all his matches. He wants to do his best every time he’s on the court. And the other Nico is completely different. Outside the court I’m happy. I want to laugh and joke with my team.”
Enqvist believes that showing frustration is not necessarily such a bad thing, as long as it’s done in a positive way.
“You have to be careful as you can channel emotions too much,” he says. “For players who are naturally emotional, they should try and pick the right moment to actually express that because you can also use it to your advantage. It’s never good to keep things inside. It’s different being frustrated than it is to be down on yourself. Negative energy is never good. Sometimes you don’t even need to show it but you can be negative just with the way you’re thinking and feeling. That’s bad but if you need to get the frustration out of you, there’s nothing wrong in breaking a racket, and moving on from there. It’ll cost you $2,000 [in a racket abuse fine] but if it helps you turn the match around then that doesn’t matter.”
Almagro says that he consulted a psychologist when he was 15 to try and work on channelling his emotions more effectively but he’s come to the realisation that the most useful psychological coaching comes from the people who know him best.
“My team know everything that’s happening in my life and that’s what you need. They are the only people who know exactly what to say to get me in the right mentality ahead of a key match. I tried a few different things when I was younger as you need to have something which sets you apart from the other players.”
One man who’s always been exceptional at managing his emotions on court is, of course, Nadal. As two of his closest friends since the junior days, Ferrer and Almagro have observed that at first hand over the past 15 years.
“For me, Rafa has the best mentality I’ve ever seen on a tennis court,” Ferrer says. “He is just different to other players. It’s the combination of that mentality, that ability to block everything out and just focus on the next point, along with his talent. The chances of getting someone with that combination are just one in a million.”
Manage YOUR emotions
Tennis takes enough energy without wasting it on unnecessary emotion. Here are some ways to keep it in check.
>> Remember, first reaction is not always best reaction. If a call has gone against you, for example, pause and consider whether you really need to challenge. More importantly, how you’re going to challenge, especially if you know that ranting and raving won’t change the outcome.
>> Focus on what’s next, not what just happened. Looking back will only add to your frustration and take more valuable energy.
>> Use your routines. A regular action, such as a certain number of deep breaths after a point, will help keep you focused for the next point.
>> Speak to yourself nicely. You can’t change an error once it’s happened, so keep your inner talk positive. “Keep trying”, for example, is far more effective, than “you idiot”.
>> Accept it. Frustration and stress are simply a part of the game. By accepting them, you’ll be well on your way to managing them.