Monday, March 5, 2012


I have a theory:  the mental game is overrated...vastly overrated. I don't say it isn't important, and I don't say that if you lose to a player 10 times in a row, they're not going to be "in your head", so to speak. But I think if you lose to the same player over and over again, your problem with that player is technical, and any mental hang up that may result from that is a result, and not the cause. Essentially all problems in tennis, along with all solutions, are technical, and the mental side of things is merely a side-effect.

Now, if you say that to people who follow tennis, just sit back and enjoy the myriad of ways they will tell you how naive you are. "Mental strength is key", they say. "The difference between the top players and the rest is in the head and in the heart", they insist. And because most modern tennis fans are ardent supporters of one particular player (either because they like their game, or they're a compatriot, or because they're contrarian) facing the prospect that the reason their beloved isn't the best player in the world has nothing to do with psychology, and everything to do with technique, is very disconcerting.  Thus the mental game theory prevails among fans. As in, "[ENTER OF OF THE BIG 4 HERE] has the game to beat [ENTER ONE OF THE BIG 4 HERE], he just doesn't 'believe it'; he just lacks a little bit of 'confidence' - but he's just as good as [ENTER ONE OF THE BIG 4 HERE]."

And tennis fans aren't the only ones who suffer from this delusion - tennis reporters espouse this theory as if it were brought down on a tablet from Mt. Olympus by Mercury himself. And anyway, what would be the value of a sports writer if all they did was tell you why, from a technical perspective, Federer has so much trouble beating Nadal, or Djokovic seems to be so dominant of Nadal lately. 

That's obvious to anyone who watches, and you wouldn't get all of that ancient greek mythology and archetype gibberish about the rise, the fall and the return of the prodigal son, facing his fears, and the power of the mind, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If the only thing a sports writer can tell you about is what you yourself can plainly see, then why bother reading what they write, or buying what they're selling? They've got to tell you something else that you can't see - and what a wonderful and invisible world of speculation and storytelling the mental game is. 

Thus, the mental game theory prevails here too.

And what about the players and coaches - don't they all concur? You'll see a player thumping his chest, suggesting he just won the point because he's so brave and so tough, all the while simultaneously suggesting his opponent lacks the same courage, or sufficient courage (this is an unfortunate side-effect of tennis being a zero-sum game). Look carefully, and you'll see their (vastly) overpaid coaches doing the same thing in the box - the fist-pumping and the chest thumping. As if to say:

"Yes, it is true that not only have I, your sensai, given you all the tools you need to beat anyone, but I have also opened your eyes to the metaphysical world of sports psychology, where by repeating a couple of mantras, even in the absence of any real technical changes, you can have the keys to your own personal valhala of victory."

I mean, just imagine the choice for your average professional:  one coach tells you that your game isn't good enough to beat the top players, but that with some work and sacrificing of your ranking while you develop and master the changes, you can develop the tools that, over time, may allow you to beat them in the future.  Meanwhile another coach tells you you've already got all the tools and it's all in your head, like a light switch that just needs to be turned on - which of course I'm going to turn on.  Now which one are you going to roll with? The latter coach needs just one or two fluky and fleeting victories to sustain his theory, so it's a no brainer - as in only someone with no brain would buy it. 

Thus the mental game theory prevails even within the sport.

Recently, on another blog, I got engaged in a dispute with another poster who wholeheartedly believes the mental game is as important, if not more important, than the technical. 


As evidence he pointed to the 7th game of the 5th set of the Australian Open final this year, as the moment when the "fact" that Djokovic is in Nadal's head, revealed itself, and caused him to collapse - ah-ha! The mental game theory laid bare to convert all the non-believers!

As a tennis player, I've never heard anything so absurd in the abstract - that I could be hypnotized into believing I'm better than Roger Federer, because it's all in my head! The truth is, if he played left handed with a ping pong paddle, he'd still beat me - and I'm only half joking. Because mental strength (and its ugly twin sister, 'belief') would only get me so far. 

But what about the pros? Somehow, when it comes to two professionals who presumably have all the skills needed to beat anyone in the world, we're more than ready to suspend our disbelief of this ridiculous theory that the difference between the two players, any two players, is merely in the mind.

My question is why? For this theory to hold water, the top players would have to be truly technically omnipotent - that is to say they have all the shots and capacity at their disposal, and are capable of doing anything equally well on a tennis court. After all, if a top player didn't have all the shots, why wouldn't everyone expose that limitation equally and render him no longer a top player?

Let's take one simple example - the case of Rafael Nadal. And let's distill it down even further to one facet of Nadal's game - his serve. If you watched the Australian Open final, you know that Nadal had trouble holding serve throughout the match. And that has been the case since Djokovic started beating him like a drum last spring. In this match, the case was no different, but in the 5th set, up until the 7th game (Nadal's 4th service game) everything seemed to be going hunky-dory. So what happened? How did Djokovic, all of a sudden, break Nadal when everything seemed to be going Rafa's way in that all important 7th game? 

Well, a technical and tactical analysis starts with an analysis of each point. Here's a link to the 5th set for your reference:

1st point: Nadal goes wide in the deuce court on first serve, but misses (which was a blessing because it was a terrible serve that Djokovic would have crushed). With the second serve he goes back to his more comfortable serve closer to the T.  After defending well with high looping groundstrokes, he eventually pounces on a short and shallow forehand up the line and wins the point with a precise and gutsy inside out forehand.

At 15-0 Nadal tries to burn one up the T and misses. That’s the second first serve to the forehand he’s missed. The second serve is his more comfortable serve wide with a combination of top and slice to the backhand, but because he takes a lot of pace off of it to make sure he doesn't make a double-fault, Djokovic eats it for breakfast.

15-15 Nadal burns a first serve up the T to Djokovic’s backhand. It slices away from him with pace, and he dumps the return in the net - easy peasy. Thus far Nadal has missed two first serves to the forehand and got a service winner on his only first serve to the backhand. Both second serves were to the backhand.

30-15 Nadal goes wide to the backhand on his first serve and doesn't miss, and this one has more depth and pace but Djokovic can hits a solid deep return. Although on the defensive, Nadal stays in the point but makes an error to lose it - a backhand pass moving forward - it’s one of the few shots in his arsenal he doesn't hit well.

30-30 In a carbon copy of the first point, again Nadal goes wide to the forehand on his first serve and misses...again.  That’s the third first serve to the forehand, and third miss. Second serve is in the exact same spot as in the first point, but the return is more firm, and Djokovic is in control from the beginning of the point and earns a break point.

Now, at break point, remembering that Nadal has MISSED 3 out of 3 first serves to the forehand, Djokovic knows that if Nadal goes to his forehand again, he’ll probably miss it again, so what does he do? He straddles the sideline and basically dares Nadal to go up the T, then when Nadal is in his service motion, takes a slight hop step to his forehand, in anticipation of the ruse working, which it does. Nadal promptly misses his first serve into the net…AGAIN. That’s 4 out of 4 (first) serves to the forehand that have missed.

Now unless Djokovic has a mid-match lobotomy, he's got to know the second serve his going to his backhand, because Nadal has shown that he can’t hit a first serve to his forehand, let alone a second serve, so he again straddles the sideline, but this time as Nadal goes into his service motion he stays put: why? Because he knows Nadal cannot effectively serve to the forehand on a second serve.  Even if Nadal goes up the T on a second serve in the ad court, he could stand in the doubles alley and probably still get to it, because Nadal's got to take pace off of it to avoid a double fault. In other words Nadal has a technical limitation on his first and second serve which Djokovic has thought about, exposed and exploited - expertly.

In the end, as if by script, Rafa goes wide with the second serve, which the Djoker belts hard into Rafa’s forehand (another shot that Rafa has had problems with, according to Federer anyway) and Rafa makes an error and loses the point.

A very long explanation, I know, but the point is Nadal, one of the best players in the history of the game, has a technical limitation on his serve that Djokovic has identified, exposed by monkeying around on his return positioning, and exploited by executing 3 outstanding backhand returns. So, while it's expedient (and by the way, completely useless) to suggest that Nadal's problem in this game was in his head, the analysis shows clearly that it is a technical limitation that cost him that game, and logically it would be a technical solution that would have saved him.

If Nadal had a more solid serve to the forehand in either court, he probably wins that game at 40-15 and is up 5-2 in the final set, instead of back on serve. Can Nadal make that change to his serve again – a technical change? I don't see why not. 

At the US Open in 2010 his serve was outstanding. Unfortunately, since then, Nadal's motion has reverted to a serve that gives him neither the accuracy nor the pop he needs to reliably hold serve against Djokovic - he will have his share of holds because he's a complete player.  And against another opponent who lacks the technical capacity to expose this weakness (read Roger Federer) it’s no problem.  But tennis is all about match ups, and against this player, who has the tactical understanding and the technique to take advantage of it, it was a big problem - and more importantly will continue to be.

So even if that match up problem is in his head, the solution is to develop a reliable first and second serve up the T in the ad court and out wide in the deuce court, and then all the “mental stuff”, which appears to be so debilitating on face value, disappears instantly - like unruly behavior on “The Dog Whisperer”.  He would be totally wasting his time concerning himself with a lot of pseudo-psychological drivel about "believing" he'll win and, having the "confidence" to close it out, which won’t help him one iota in the match.

It's easy to ascribe results in tennis to the mental side of the game - it's one player, and you can assign to him whatever mental state you want. And if the mismatch is resolved, it's more dramatic and interesting to imagine that the hero has conquered his demons, than a simple solution like lower your toss, or bring the racquet head up earlier - after all, where is the heroism in that?  So, that's what generally gets discussed when analyzing a player and a match up that looks unexpectedly one-sided.

But it's no closer to the actual underlying issue, or more importantly, the potential solution.

ADDENDUM:  IT SEEMS RAFA AGREES WITH ME - listen to his answer to the question of why he gives "confidence" or "belief" to his opponents by admitting to the periodic frailty of his game. I live and breathe, my I live and breathe.
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