Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The most devastating weapon in tennis history


·        Imagine you are building the perfect tennis player.  You can choose one shot, serve, or strength from any player in history.  What do you choose?  Maybe you want Pete Sampras’ serve.  After all, Pete’s serve is arguably the best in the history of the game.  He bailed himself out of many tough spots with that beautiful serve.  Remember the 33 aces he fired against Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final? Against the greater return of all time at that point. 

Perhaps you admire Kim Clijsters extraordinary flexibility.  She could slide better on hard courts than most could on clay courts; reaching shots she had no business reaching.  Or maybe you would love to have Roger Federer’s smooth as butter forehand at your disposal.  Roger can kill you with his forehand using incredible pace, depth, spin, and even with a forehand drop volley from the baseline.  Any one of these weapons would be great, but for my money, no shot, serve, or strength is better than Rafael Nadal’s mental toughness.

Modern tennis is all about suffering.  As a top pro these days, you must be willing to endure hours of pain.  Look at the recent 2012 U.S. Open final.  It was 4 hours and 54 minutes, tying the record for the longest final ever.  Andy Murray admitted as much after his historic U.S. Open win, saying, "I mean, obviously not everyone in here sees all of the stuff that goes on away from the court in terms of the training that you do and I guess the physical sort of suffering, the stuff you put your body through on a weekly basis to try and prepare for these moments so you can play for four and a half hours at a high intensity.” 

Now more than ever this true.  Players are playing with lighter racquets and synthetic strings.  Because of the new technology, they are free to swing with reckless abandon, generating unprecedented pace and spin, with the spin allowing for a large margin of error.  Consequently, players are contesting longer points.  The string technology also lets players keep the ball on the racquet longer than ever before, making it easier for them to pass players with ease.  This forces players to slug it out from the baseline, further lengthening the points. 

In addition, players now focus on fitness year round.  More and more players can play longer and more powerful points.  In another time, a player like David Ferrer would have been blown off the court.  But because of racquet technology and fitness, he can generate the necessary racquet head speed to hang with the big boys.   The end result is hours of punishing sprinting around the tennis court.

This is precisely why Rafa’s mental toughness is so important to building the perfect player.  In my view, mental toughness consists of two parts.  The first is the will to compete on each and every shot, as if it were your last.  The second is the ability to hold your nerve in the face of immense pressure, i.e. how you perform in the big moments. 

At the elite level, everyone has superior physical gifts - catlike agility, endless endurance, jaw dropping power, etc.  It is the mental toughness, however, that separates the top three or four players from the rest.  For example, watch Rafa’s biggest matches and you will notice his mental toughness again and again.  He ALWAYS out-competes his opponent, running down every shot.  In my opinion, this is the real reason he dominates Federer in head to head matches.  Federer is a tennis purist.  For Fed, tennis is art, it is elegance, it is aesthetically pleasing.  If he hits a blistering running forehand down the line, then, dammit, it should be a winner.   Against most players, it usually is a winner.  But not against Nadal.  When facing Rafa, Federer is forced to hit a winner three, four, sometimes even five shots in a row before finishing off the point.  This absolutely pisses Roger off.  Usually Roger is a stone cold rock; his face betraying no emotions whatsoever.  After losing a point where he hit what he thinks are three or four winners against Nadal, suddenly he is frustrated, yelling, or looking sullen.

The more amazing aspect to this component of mental toughness is Rafa's ability to return winners  during the most pressure filled moments.  Remember his forehand winners up the line and cross court deep into the match against Fed in the 2008 final?  Those shots required serious gumption and stones.  Or flash back to the 2009 Madrid Masters semis with Djokovic.  Down match point and he unleashes a furious rally culminating with an "are you kidding me" run around his backhand, forehand up the line winner!  Check out the video of this exchange here.  This rally illustrates both his desire to run down every winner, as well as his performance under the specter of match point.

You really can't teach that quality in a young tennis player.  You have to love the competition.  You have to love the pain and suffering you must endure to win.  This is Rafa's hallmark.  If he keeps this mindset, I say here he comes back from his latest injury and dominates once again.

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