We could learn a lot from sports minds
LTennis players know how fragile the mind can be and they are not above using ploys to get into an opponent’s head.
eading sportswomen have received a great deal of sympathy lately for acknowledging the mental pressure on them but sympathy is of limited help. Sport is full of lessons for life and, when you play it, the battle with your own mind can be harder than beating an opponent.
Over the past fortnight I’ve lost a lot of sleep watching red clay tennis courts in Paris. Most nights I’ve been content with a recording of the previous day’s play, fast-forwarding to matches of choice. But two games in the small hours of Tuesday our time were a must-see live.
Two 19-year-olds from Italy — the latest teenage sensations on the circuit — were up against Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in successive matches. The names Lorenzo Musetti and Jannik Sinner could one day be as well-known as the names they were about to play.
Sinner was a name I’d heard from enthusiasts who watch more ATP events on TV than I do. As soon as I saw him at the French Open I could see why they’d been impressed. Thin as a colt and boyish, he looks too young to have shots of such power and authority.
Musetti was not a name I’d heard before but when he started to play one of the greats it was no surprise he’d been a junior champion. He seemed not at all fazed facing Djokovic across the net. The kid pounded down his serves, displayed the sweetest of backhands and hit heavy groundstrokes into the corners as though this was not his first grand slam tournament.
For two sets he had Djokovic on the ropes. The world number one looked rattled and off-balance. Both sets went to tiebreaks and the youngster won them. Then something strange happened.
From the first exchange of the third set he lost his touch. Shots started going wide. The serve went weak, the drives went long or into the net, or bounced up and presented Djokovic with easy winners.
Demons had entered Musetti’s head. You could see them in his face and body language. He was tight and trapped by nervous tension. He looked to his coaching box but there’s not much a mentor can do from up there. He dropped serve twice and the set was gone, 6-1.
In the fourth set the boy started to beat himself up, not out loud but inwardly. Again you could see it. He was hitting with anguish and anger at himself. What happened next is known to players at any level. You become so disgusted with yourself you detach. It’s as though you are two people, one playing the game and the other watching, almost willing the player to confirm your disgust. The youngster’s shots became so limp it was embarrassing.
Djokovic motored through the rest of the match, taking the fourth set 6-0. The fifth set went to 4-0 and Musetti pulled out, pleading an injury that had not been apparent. The spectators knew what had happened and gave him a standing ovation as he left. Djokovic stood and clapped him off too.
We’d been given a glimpse of Sinner, meanwhile, watching the match on a dressing room TV. When he came out to play Nadal he hardly fired a shot, going down in straight sets.
Players and teams in professional sports these days often have a psychologist on call. Tennis players know how fragile the mind can be and they are not above using ploys to get into an opponent’s head.
Djokovic had taken a “bathroom break” between those second and third sets, which may have broken Musetti’s concentration. Second seed Daniil Medvedev did the same when he was going down to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals. Near the end, Medvedev engaged the umpire in a prolonged argument to no other purpose.
Whatever help players get from sports psychologists, they don’t share it with the rest of us. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the mental contest in sport. TV commentators seldom remark on it even when it is the most interesting element of the drama on screen.
None of the news reports I’ve read of the match I’ve described mentioned Musetti’s mental meltdown. Musetti, in his post-match press conference, said he was proud of the first two sets and blamed his troubles on a five-setter in the previous round.
Well, good for him. Better that than lay yourself out for the enervating sympathy the media delivers to those who declare a mental difficulty. But I bet that when Musetti sat down with his coach and support crew, they were discussing techniques for dealing with the yips on a global stage.
Sport is a mental exercise and we could all learn more about the mind if sportspeople would talk about it.