Tennis – is it all in the mind?

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Rafael Nadal famously places his water bottles back down in the same place

Nadal is famous for intricately placing his two water bottles down on exactly the same spot

Mental toughness — much more so than in most other sports — is a vital ingredient in the makings of a good tennis player.

Matches usually last for hours, but often over 65% of the time a player spends on court, he or she isn’t actually playing at all. The way a player deals with this ‘dead’ time can make all the difference.

Unlike in other sports, there is no clock counting down – you must see out the match yourself. Mental strength during all stages of a match is crucial, and can often be what sways it one way or another.

Most professional players have turned to sports psychologists at some point during their career, and world number one Roger Federer is no exception as he admits to having sought help early on to control his temper.

“I had one back in 1997 – 1998 I think, for one-and-a-half years,” says the 15-time Grand Slam champion.

“There it was more like anger management. That was what it was about for me then. I realised pretty quickly that it was basically up to me and not someone else to tell me how to behave, because my parents were telling me anyway, friends as well.”

But the 27-year-old isn’t convinced about how much influence a sports psychologist can have on a tennis player. “I feel like in different sports maybe they can be very beneficial,” he continues.

“But tennis is quite a unique sport in the sense that we’ve got to make decisions so quickly. There’s no time to waste.”

“There is no real trick behind winning a tennis match. You can get no sleep all night and still play great; and you can prepare as good as you can, and play the worst match of your life.”

Andy Murray is another player who has turned to a professional for help. Following a wrist injury in 2007, the British number one hired the renowned psychologist, Robert Forzoni, to aid his comeback.

And if it were up to the Scot there would be more ‘mind games’ on the tennis court nowadays.

“John McEnroe says that he used it as a sort of tactic,” he says.

“I wish there was more of it going on. It makes it more interesting to watch,” Murray tells the Sunday Express.

“There is quite a lot of psychology in tennis, but rarely will you see guys sledging each other across the net.”

Superstitions and rituals are also a big part of the game for many players. Rafael Nadal is famous for intricately placing his two water bottles down on exactly the same spot at the change of ends. But the Spaniard is quick to dismiss any talk of being superstitious. “No, I’m not very superstitious at all,” he says simply.

But Andy Murray isn’t fooled as he points out another of Nadal’s on-court rituals: “He always likes to cross the net second. So he waits.”

Whether it’s avoiding walking on the court lines, or hiring a world famous sports psychologist, there is no doubt the the mental aspect of tennis is just as crucial as the physical.

Being mentally tough won’t win you a tennis match on its own, but it is certainly half the battle.


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