Tuesday, July 7, 2009

THE PRIVILEGE OF PRESSURE

Billie Jean King once said that pressure is a privilege.

Aside from reading like a catchy psychological reversal, intended to make players embrace pressure, rather than wilt under it, there may be a whole lot more truth to this.

In light of the fact that Roger Federer has, in the span of two weeks accomplished everything in 2009 that seemed so far from his grasp in 2008, the question becomes two questions: will he play the remainder of his career without pressure, and more importantly, is that necessarily a good thing?

When he won his maiden French Open, Federer was quoted as saying that he could play the remainder of his career pressure free because nobody would be able to say that he never won the French Open. I had my doubts – I thought he could play the French Open pressure free…maybe...but until he reached that magical number 15, the one that ends his obligation to anyone who was withholding his place in tennis history, I felt there would always be huge pressure on him to go 7 and 0 over a fornight just one more time. The plot thickened when his nemesis, exited stage left before the curtain raised – after all, if Darth Federer couldn’t dominate the tennis galaxy when his personal Luke Skywalker was off in the Dagova system, then when would he? Pressure indeed.

But what happens to a great champion when the pressure is off – when the peaks have been scaled, the quiet questions answered loudly, and his face on Mt. Rush-the-net-More sculpted. On this question, history is a dark and murky water way of let downs.

When Pete Sampras won his 13th grand slam at Wimbledon in 2000, he appeared to collapse emotionally under the weight of expectations and the knowledge of the struggle and sacrifice his success required. For the first time that I can remember until then, Sampras cried at the victory ceremony. For a man who scarcely showed his emotions (and when he did, seemed to do so begrudgingly) it seemed the last finger in the dyke just couldn’t resist, and when it broke there was no turning back. It would be another 2 years before Sampras won his 14th – along the way he showed some flashes of his former self – that 2001 US Open quarterfinal with Agassi comes to mind, only to then lose rather tamely to Lleyton Hewitt in the final. When he finally got to number 14, there had been questions for 2 years of whether he still had the game, but more tellingly, it had to be asked whether he still had the heart. He had both, apparently, because he won – so what was the difference?

That damn record, that’s what.

With his white whale slaughtered, Ahab ceased to exist as he had. Sampras made no secret of his love for the history of the game, and never shied away from number 13. Having achieved it, he seemed less than enthusiastic about the daily slog that is the ATP tour, and with a wife and baby on the way, who could blame him. But most importantly – every question had been answered, and but for one moment of defiance when the press began to target his wife with their cynicism, Sampras had little to prove, and very little pressure and his results showed it. Interestingly, 2002 was the first year that the US Open went to 32 seeds, and as a result the 17th ranked player in the world happened to be Pete Sampras. Had seeds been capped at their traditional 16, he may have faced Lleyton Hewitt in the first round, rather than Albert Portas. Maybe he would have won anyway, but it's interesting to ponder.

McEnroe went 74-2 in 1984. He reached 3 grand slam finals, including his only final in Paris, obliterated Connors at Wimbledon, and then ran through the field at the US Open. With the exception of a late night semi-final, also against Connors, that ended Sunday morning, his path to the final was fraught with potentials for Herculean collapses. In the end, he returned, promptly dispatched Ivan Lendl in the final, the only player who had beaten him that year, who himself had struggled to a 5-set win over Pat Cash on the last truly Super Saturday, and was in worse shape than McEnroe. He held the #1 ranking for another year until he lost the US Open final in 1985 (also to Lendl, starting a string of 3 victories in a row at Flushing) but that would be his last grand slam final – afterwards family put the pressure of a tennis match in its proper perspective and lo and behold, McEnroe was never the same mentally. He didn’t turn 30 until 1989, and his run in the Australian Open in 1990 made it clear that he was still capable of brilliance, but when the pressure of expectation disappeared, so too did his results.

Mats Wilander reached the #1 ranking in 1988 by winning 3 out of 4 slams that year – the only crown missing from his cabinet was Wimbledon – an irony probably not lost on him given that he won 2 Australian Opens on grass. But after reaching the end of the rainbow that year, with his beacon obscured by the haze of success, his accomplishments did more than dwindle – he never won another tournament, let alone a slam, and only briefly ever moonlighted in the top 10.

There is a huge psychological component to tennis – and players talk a lot about dealing with the pressure. It’s fascinating because of all the factors involved in a tennis match, pressure is the only one that it totally intangible, and as such, only exists in the mind if the player allows it to. What’s even more fascinating is that pressure appears to be an essential element to keeping a player sufficiently sharp and motivated to succeed, and yet, it is most often cited as a reason a player fails.

In the Wimbledon final this year, it was clear that in a couple of key moments in the match Andy Roddick succumbed to the pressure – namely that backhand volley that floated wide at set point in the 2nd set tie-break. Both players would have been forgiven for feeling the pressure at the moment, and apparently Federer handled it better. It would seem to follow logically that a player playing without pressure would play more freely and presumably achieve more success.

But ask yourself this – when you’re playing tennis are you sharper and more accurate when you’re just hitting, or when you start keeping score? Sure you'll hit a couple of bombs that you wouldn't hit in a match, but you're probably just that little bit more precise when it counts - and it only counts in your head unless you're a pro, so imagine what they're feeling.

I certainly hope that Federer will prove me wrong – perhaps he will prove the anomaly that the absence of pressure makes a great champion even greater, but somehow it doesn’t seem intuitive to me. Now that he has his 15th grand slam, he will be without the privilege of pressure, but will he succeed?

It seems BJK, in this and many other ways, is onto something.