Oh, man. Tignor nails it.
I can relate to del Potro, and, as I’ve written here before, I can also relate to Ivanovic, both in her inability to hit a specific stroke, and the total loss of confidence that comes with it. When I competed for real, I went through periods where it felt like I was finding a way to lose, that even if I played well for a few games, or a set, in the back of my mind I was waiting for the truth to come out. The truth being that I couldn’t win a tennis match. Are you surprised that I didn’t win a whole lot of matches with this mindset?
Watching Ivanovic this year, I recognized similar signs in her attitude. If something went wrong in the first game, she was quick to pull her visor down over her eyes in embarrassment and anxiety, as if to say, “I knew this was going to happen,” or “I know what’s coming, and I can’t look.” It’s a terrible feeling to believe that you can’t win. When I’m in that state, the beginning of a match can feel like I'm standing at the bottom of a mountain, with no clue where to start climbing. Errors confirm the truth about yourself, good shots seem like pathetic mirages, delays before the inevitable.
Does this sound overly dramatic, or a little depressing? I’d say it’s the nature of tennis. If your basketball team or baseball team or soccer team is losing, there’s some distance between that failure and yourself. It’s not fun, and it will get to you, but it’s a little like your company not doing well. You may not be good at your job, but it’s still a job, it’s not you. That distance doesn’t exist in tennis. The sport is you.
Today Ivanovic’s run of strong play in Rome ended in the semifinals. Over the course of the week, she’d gone from giddy in victory to quietly satisfied, as if she was beginning to expect to win again. The upside of the personal nature of tennis is that it doesn’t take long for you to start thinking good things about yourself, just like it doesn’t take long to believe the worst. It’s an intensified and compacted version of the swings—from joy to despair and every irrational point in between—that we all go through in our heads each day.
Near the end of her match, Ivanovic did a brief visor clutch after a lost point. The despair had, for the moment, returned. That’s what you get when you’re brave enough to play a sport where you’re never more than two points from changing your entire opinion about yourself. In tennis, you're always poised, hanging, dangling—two points from hope, two points from doom. You never know which way you're going to go.
Great article. There's stuff on DelPo as well.