When people think of professional tennis, the “Big 3” usually comes to mind: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, or Roger Federer. Each player has been able to play at a consistently high level for over a decade and a half, showing opponents no mercy along the way. Even as Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer play into their mid-30s (now 40s for Roger), they still defeat players almost half their age. So What (besides their superb physical training), separate these three from the rest of the field? One factor is that each of the Big 3 has stellar mental conditioning. Throughout their respective careers, each player has consistently performed well on tennis's biggest stages, especially in Grand Slam finals. Most of the time, these guys only lose against each other, but what’s unique about tennis, and what makes Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer’s excellence even more impressive, is that besides the obvious physical demands, mentally, the game of tennis can be incredibly challenging.
These guys have predominantly been singles players in their careers, so when they’re on the court they’re solely responsible for the outcome of the match. Unlike team sports, where each player has an assigned role to contribute to victory, a tennis player has to make all the decisions and exude complete trust in themselves to win the match. Additionally, other sports involve coaches who stand or sit on the court or field delivering in-game strategies as well as providing motivational comments and speeches to keep the morale of the players high. In tennis, the player has to be their own coach. It’s up to the player to utilize the necessary self-talk and stay focused on their process during the match. The actual coach of the player can only watch from the stands, observing the implementation of tactics discussed during prior to the match.
Roger’s Elite Composure
Of the big three, there is one player in particular whose composure always stands out... and while he isn’t the current leader in grand-slam titles, he is still considered to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Tied for second all-time with 20 grand slam titles, Roger Federer has been routinely praised for his dominance in the sport. The dominance doesn’t stop at Federer’s physical abilities, however. His disposition on the court is unlike most players on the tour in that it is unshakingly positive, even through the plethora of frustrating situations the game presents such as: making errors and the heartbreak of losing close matches. A New York Times article from 2017 surrounding Federer’s rejuvenating season after a hiatus discusses how Federer (and other top players with positive mindsets) significantly enhance their longevity.
Federer’s free flowing shot-making exacts much less of a toll, and his fluid movement has enabled him to sidestep serious injury to a remarkable degree, at least on the court.
None of this might have mattered, however, if not for Federer’s unquenchable optimism. The international talent pool on the men’s tour is so deep that everyone in the Top 100 qualifies as an athletic freak. What separates the long-lasting stars from the rest is maintaining a good attitude. Set by set, game by game, sometimes even point by point, matches are strewn with frustrations — break points and game points frittered away, set and match points squandered, matches that seemed over all but ripped from your grip — and somehow you have to see the big picture, recognize how good your life is compared with the average civilian’s and not go dark.
Not only does Federer have the most multifaceted game; he also has one of the best dispositions for the game. His effortless grace makes it easy to forget that he has suffered his share of heartbreaking defeats.
(De Jonge, 2017).
Composure Can be Developed
While Federer is praised for his graceful nature and optimistic attitude, it’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case. Athletes like Roger usually show clear signs of talent early in their lives, but that doesn’t always equate to the same level of emotional maturity. Take a look at this clip that shows footage of a young, visibly irritated Federer throwing rackets and kicking tennis balls. His parents, Robert and Lynette Federer, were also interviewed and discussed how unimpressed they were with Roger’s on-court antics. Roger’s mom made a great point about how Roger being out of control with his emotions not only affected his game but gave clear signs of mental weakness to be used to the opponent’s advantage:
“I used to tell him that - your bad behavior is like sending an invitation to your opponent and saying “here I am, beat me. I’m ready to be beaten today, so go ahead.”
While Roger is only a child in those clips, the path to becoming a more mature and composed athlete starts early on. It’s why when we were young we were instructed to shake the hands of our opponents at the end of games. Still, being respectful of our opponent(s) doesn’t always translate to being respectful to ourselves and accepting the positives and negatives of our performance. We may think that our frustrations during games or matches only affect our performance but, like Roger’s mom said, they can also elevate the performance of the opponent. An opponent can visibly see you’re shaken up by the trajectory of the game/match and that alone gives them the emotional advantage and a sense of composure and confidence moving forward in the match. In this situation the opponent isn’t necessarily playing “better” tennis per se, rather you exposing a weakness in your game similar to attacking a weakness in your skill or strategy.
Controlling Difficult Emotions
Most players, when they begin playing sports, can have a hard time controlling their emotions. They think that yelling out loud to themselves with negative self-talk, or that hitting something out of frustration is a necessary motivator to enhance their performance. Many also feel this shows to others that they are disapproving of poor performances while being evaluated. While intuitively you may think that venting out frustration and talking to yourself negatively would enhance concentration, it’s more likely to do the opposite. Why? Because now the focus isn’t fully on the next shot, it’s still harboring over the previous mistake and potentially opening up a more complex emotional experience leading to irrational decisions and poor play. In tennis, the game has to be played as if each point is an entirely new game with nonattachment to each point. Win the point? Cool, on to the next point. Lose the point? Cool, on to the next point. If not, (or if another mistake is made on top of the last one) the frustration and negative internal dialogue will likely intensify, potentially resulting in some object, the racket, ball, or something else in the nearby vicinity being the recipient of your anger.
Besides the two clips in the link above occurring during matches in 2016, most of the incidents of Roger throwing his racket appeared early on in his career (2000-2006). Roger’s mental composure dramatically improved from the time he was a little kid to when he turned professional, with most of the incidents shown in the video taking the commentators and fans by surprise.
Non-Attachment to the Outcome
A lot of times in tennis, a string of points may not go your way, or an umpire (or your opponent) will make a bad judgment call if a ball was in or out. This can easily deter one’s composure and/or confidence and can subsequently affect the outcome of the match. In this way, matches lost could be attributed to one’s focus on mistakes instead of accepting them and moving on. However, like all things in life, change is inevitable. If a strategy or mindset we’ve adopted isn’t working, whether in sports or at work, a pivot is necessary to generate different results.
In the case of Roger, all signs point to emotional/mental maturity as a significant factor in elevating his already superb game. One way or another, he realized that all shots aren’t always going to go this way. He had to bounce back and focus on the next point with complete non-attachment. In that case, then, we take a rule out of the "Buddhist playbook", specifically on non-attachment, which “relates to an engagement with experience and flexibility and without fixation on achieving specific outcomes” (Whitehead et al, 2018). If you allow your performance in sport to come naturally and focus on each play as it unfolds, not harboring on perfection or the result, you are more likely to play relaxed and, as a result, play better.
Win the point, win the match.
Bonus material from Roger and the evolution of his mindset: