“Pressure is a privilege” Billie Jean King has said. It is. But it’s the way you handle it that counts.
As a result of the various ways in which pressure can affect all athletes, and especially tennis players because of the individual nature of the sport, there have been some negative headlines emerging from a hot and intense first week at Wimbledon. But let’s be positive for a moment.
The Centre Court duel between British No 1 Johanna Konta and the 21-year-old Croat, Donna Vekic, was one of the best matches I have seen all year. For a start, the standard of tennis was fantastic, with both players serving well but able to push each other to 0-30 four times in the last six games of a torrid third set.
Vekic, who had beaten Konta to win Nottingham a week before, had never played such a big match on such a big stage. Konta was trying desperately not to disappoint herself and a nation. Pressure? It was there in all its fierce intensity.
Konta came through in the end, and then revealed the kind of mind set required to deal with situations like that. “I really tried to see the constructive and the positive things that I was doing and also accept the good things that she was doing because she was doing very, very many good things…..Even when the momentum shifted slightly to her side, I still felt I kept my mind quite light….”
Keeping your mind light at 6-6 in a third set tie break on Centre Court with a nation watching your every move? How is that for dealing with pressure? How many of us understand what that takes? How many of us can comprehend why Andy Murray suddenly found his arm literally shaking when he prepared to serve for his first Wimbledon title in 2013? It’s pressure of an extreme kind.
When Konta finally clinched it 10-8 in the deciding breaker, the crowd went home happy and television viewers went off to make themselves a cup of tea – or something stronger. They were probably feeling in need of sustenance just for having watched it.
But what about the players? We take it for granted that top athletes go out and perform to ridiculously high standards for thousands of dollars in front of a massive world wide audience. But can they really understand what it takes to be in a cockpit of competition like Wimbledon’s Centre Court?
I don’t, and I have spent my life rubbing shoulders with those who do. But it’s worth thinking about. Of course, there is high pressure in all walks of life – the doctor who has to decide on a procedure that may save a life or cause a death; the trader whose finger hovers over a button on his computer that could make or lose $10 million; the fire fighter who has to make as split second decision to dive into a blaze – or not.
These are terrifying moments of pressure that may be considered tougher than anything an athlete has to face. But, to take a tennis player, these high pressure moments have to be faced day after day, week after week – out there alone, in public. And afterwards they have to explain why they made that mistake at 30-40 under relentless media questioning minutes after they walk off court.
Oh, it’s a grand life – of course it is. Playing a sport you love; travelling the world, fame and five star hotels and making loads of money (if you are REALLY good). It all sounds great. But only a certain type of very strong, very focused, very fit and hugely determined person can handle it.
Some can’t and unhappily the talented Australian Bernard Tomic appears to be one of them. After another listless performance, losing in straight sets to Mischa Zverev, Tomic said this: “I don’t know why but I felt a little bored out there….I just couldn’t find any motivation…..Holding a trophy doesn’t satisfy me any more…I couldn’t care less if I make the fourth round of the US Open or I lose in the first round.”
This is a 24-year-old who has been ranked as high as 17 in the world and was a Wimbledon quarter-finalist as far back as 2011. But mentally he’s done. Given the tough love he received from his combustible father and his own difficult temperament, I don’t find his comments particularly surprising. In fact, feeling the way he does makes him closer to normal than the incredible champions whose work ethic and ambition keeps the fires burning in their bellies for year after year. Players like Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are as close to being super human as you can get.
So I sympathize with Tomic – to an extent. What I do object to is the way he revealed those thoughts at Wimbledon. Everyone – spectators, players, ball boys and gate attendants -- are thrilled to be at Wimbledon. It is a happy place with players trying to perform for high paying customers while fulfilling their own ambitions. To discover that someone is just going through the motions and doesn’t care is disappointing in the extreme. It is disrespectful to the Championships and people who pay to attend.
To be fair, Tomic obviously understands this. “I believe you have to respect the sport. But I think I don’t respect it enough…”
So one cannot accuse him of being dishonest, just of having bad judgment.
But that was just one isolated incident of how pressure has been playing its part in this Wimbledon. In the men’s singles, seven players retired mid-match. Unhappily for the Centre Court fans who had paid a fortune to be there, two of them, Alexander Dolgopolov, who was playing Roger Federer, and Martin Klizan, who was facing Novak Djokovic, quit on the same afternoon on Centre Court. Federer led 6-3, 3-0 and Djokovic 6-3, 2-0. That’s not value for money.
Obviously, it caused a furor and rightly so because virtually all these defaults were the result of pre-existing conditions. Even Obamacare wouldn’t have been able to put a big enough bandage on wounds like that.
The players who retired hurt should not, with hindsight, have walked on court. But there were two factors involved – two types of pressure. The first was financial. After much negotiation with the ATP Board of Directors, first round prize money at the Slams has recently been increased. At Wimbledon, for both men and women, it currently stands at L35,000 ($44,800). For someone like Klizan or Denis Istomin, who quit against Donald Young, that represents a lot of money.
People who can’t get their head around being paid for losing, think that’s ridiculous. But the money is not for losing – it’s for having won enough matches on tour to get into the main draw in the first place. The ATP has recognized that and now, if you go to the site of an ATP event and withdraw through injury, you get to keep the first round prize money while a lucky loser gets to play, earning ranking points but only receives money if he reaches the second round.
The Grand Slams will be studying this now and will probably come up with a similar solution – as they should.
The other pressure an unfit player feels is the incessant need to compete; the fear of giving a rival a chance; the delusional feeling that maybe, if you can stay on court long enough, your opponent may pull a muscle. Or maybe it will rain and you’ll feel better the next day.
All of which is understandable but it does not hold water. Professional athletes do not only live with the pressure they put on themselves to perform at the very maximum of their ability but there is also the pressure that comes from having to give the paying customer a performance worthy of their interest.
So, during just this first week of Wimbledon, we have seen pressure encapsulated in all its forms. It’s what the players live with, and for all the rewards, it is not easy.