Guest post by Paul Micelli
To recognize the type of player who relies on hitting the ball as hard as possible and continually rushes to the net in an erratic fashion is to recognize a man who has no specific direction of attack when playing the game of tennis. On a psychological level, the player often displays rare flashes of brilliance but because his play tends to be impulsive, the mental signs indicate the absence of a consistent chain of thought.
Perhaps the most dangerous player is the one who displays a noticeable mix in his own playing style and moves consistently from the back to the front of the court, waiting for the perfect moment to deliver the point-winning shot. Psychologically this is a man with a definitive purpose in life. He is a quick thinker and a great student of the game. The clear understanding of his own thought processes serve as an indication of his ability to look into the minds of others. With such a strong grasp of both the physical and mental sides of the game of tennis, this is the player that revels in being subtly antagonistic and is able to respond to practically every question that is asked of him. These traits are universally recognized as the characteristics of champions and only the most dogged of opponents will be able to lay attack on their mental armor.
Even so, that dogged player continues to exist in the world of tennis and is often found to be the slayer of kings. This is the player who understands that he can only produce winning tennis by sticking to the style that has served him so well in the past. No matter where the game takes him on an emotional level he will stick to his guns without wavering and will adhere to his stance right to the bitter end. Although the psychological mannerisms of this player are always easy to understand, they are not so easy to break. Where most other players will be on the point of surrender, the reluctant hero will dig their heels in to the point of mental overload. Although they may not be the most attractive players to watch, the determined fighter and underdog remains as a worthy opponent.
Identifying players by their physical game play and mental characteristics is easy. The erratic Andre Agassi, who promised so much in terms of brilliance but failed to hold the mental side of his game together for long periods of his tennis career, was often bullied on a psychological level. On his good days, Agassi could be considered a genius. When the mental side of his game went to pieces, it usually came at times of deep personal crisis in his private life and he was never able to isolate the emotional demons for long enough to enjoy sustained periods of success.
Romantics will remember the success of Jimmy Connors, a tennis player of determined ability who lacked the flair of many of his rivals yet managed to survive in one of the most competitive decades of competitive tennis with a level of grit and determination that has remained unsurpassed in recent years. In terms of tennis psychology, the limits within the physical side of the Connors game were frequently outweighed by a level of mental steel that regularly earned unlikely victories when faced with incredibly difficult game situations.
The tentative yet formidable abilities of Sampras can be easily recognized as the questioning baseline player. Sampras forged a reputation as an athletic masterpiece of a player who rarely conceded an inch and frequently tested the ability of talented opponents with a series of searching shots. Students of the game will concede that the mental probing produced by Sampras was always a key factor, particularly in his historic sequence of championship wins at Wimbledon.
However, the players that continue to rise above the comparatively ordinary levels of their peers are the ones that we remember the most. The sheer talent and determination of Borg and McEnroe has been mirrored throughout the modern game in the shape of championship victories by Federer and Nadal. Again, this only goes to prove that mental tenacity is every bit as important as technical ability and physical excellence.
The committed attitudes of players who have dedicated themselves to forging a strong mental hold on their games have been rewarded with silverware, money and glory. Indeed, it is the spectacle of two players in the same class utilizing the mental aspects of their games that give hungry spectators the thrilling prospect of a classic game. Luck is rarely an influencing factor and players that grasp to the shadow of good fortune are frequently exposed as poor examples of psychological expertise. The true master of mental strength will focus his mind on every aspect of his game. For the true champion, tennis is not a question of improving on the shots that have already produced a history of success. It is the recall of the shots that have been missed, and the will to consolidate them, that separates good players from the truly great.
It is here that confidence, mental strength and an understanding of psychological prowess becomes more relevant than ever. Let us choose a potential scenario within the physical realm of tennis. Your opponent is control of a point and forces you wide with an angled shot. Sheer physical strength and a determination to salvage the point sees you return the shot down the sideline but unfortunately, the ball is wide by an inch or so. For your opponent this individual point suddenly becomes a question of concern. The mental strength you have displayed will raise the question of how easily the ball could have remained in play and to some extent your opponent may be reluctant to force you deep and wide again for fear of you making the shot next time round. The point may be lost, but the psychological battle is well and truly won. Sapping the confidence of an opponent in unlikely circumstances is a key factor in sustaining a mental edge.
Had the return been knocked back into play to give your opponent an easy volley at the net, the balance of psychological power would have shifted completely. Your inability to keep the ball out of his reach would have provided a massive boost in confidence for your opponent while your own efforts would have only ended in frustration and wasted energy. However, we can alternatively assume that you made the shot effectively and managed to secure the point. In simple terms, the point would then have been worth twice the value in psychological terms. As well as taking the point away from your opponent, you have effectively won a point that you should never have had in the first place. These psychological margins may appear negligible at first glance but in terms of setting the pattern for a match, a single point can be the difference between winning the mental battle and losing it.
Even assuming that two players begin a match with an equal chance of victory, the player that establishes an early lead will see his confidence soar while his opponent begins to worry. The distinct parallels between winning and losing have become immediately apparent yet the psychological battle has, in reality, only just begun. Should the losing player manage to draw level or pull ahead, the shift in mental dominance will provide an even greater contrast of psychological dominance and under these circumstances, a collapse in the game of his opponent will almost be inevitable.