The difference is all in the head

The ability to handle pressure, and not just physical skills, is what separates the best from the merely talented

“My game, you know, is very good when I have nothing in my head, when I just play my game,” he said after defeating Mardy Fish in five sets at the US Open.

Off to the side, a photographer was working away, his camera’s motor drive making a sound as if crickets were invading the room. The noise caused other journalists to turn their heads in his direction, but Tsonga kept talking.

He said that being “really, really strong in the head,” as he put it, meant he was not thinking “about other things like the wind, people in the box.” Tsonga’s voice trailed off as he joined the others in looking at the crouching photographer. He smiled and added, “All this stuff.”

Some players in the Open draw have faster serves than others or more penetrating ground strokes or better touch at the net. But at the elite level, those differences are negligible. Those who succeed are the ones who are really, really strong in the head.

“Physically, there is not much difference between No 78 in the world and Nos 2, 3, 1, 5,” said Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s player, who has lost two matches all year.

“Everybody’s working hours and hours on the court.” He added: “It’s a mental ability to handle the pressure, to play well at the right moments, and that’s why I think there is a certain difference with top-10 players.”

Djokovic’s fourth-round victory against Alexandr Dolgopolov, the No 22 seed, was a case in point. Extended to a tie breaker in the first set, he weathered four set points by Dolgopolov and prevailed, 16-14, when Dolgopolov hit a forehand out after a long rally.

“I think mental strength you get over the years playing on the tour, getting experience, and using that experience in a right way,” said Djokovic, who turned professional in 2003.

The brain, like a muscle, gets stronger when pushed to the point of failure. In “Rafa,” his recently published autobiography, Rafael Nadal articulated what becomes patently obvious to anyone at the Open who watches the parade of players hitting on the practice courts.

“If you watch the No 10 player in the world and the No 500 in training, you won’t necessarily be able to tell who is higher up in the rankings,” Nadal wrote. “Without the pressure of competition, they’ll move and hit the ball much the same way.”

But in the caldron of competition, cooler, clearer heads prevail. Consider No 1 Caroline Wozniacki’s three-set, three-hour match against 15th seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova on Monday.

Wozniacki’s backhand brought her back from a 4-1 deficit in the second set, but her 13 winners off that wing do not tell the whole story of her 6-7 (6-8), 7-5, 6-1 victory. Her tactical adjustments, which included stepping closer to the baseline to become more of an aggressor, would have mattered little without her ability to play the right shot at a critical moment, to stay relaxed on the tensest points, to believe she was going to win even when she was eight points from defeat.

“It’s important to stay positive,” Wozniacki said, adding: “Tennis is a funny sport. You have to just keep going.” Nobody at this Open has shown more staying power than Samantha Stosur, whose 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (5-7), 7-5 victory against Nadia Petrova was the longest women’s match in tournament history, clocking in at three hours and 16 minutes.

She needed another 2-1/2 hours to dispatch Maria Kirilenko in the fourth round. Their match included a 32-point tie-breaker in the second set, the longest for women in tournament history. Stosur came out on the losing end in the tie-breaker but stormed back to advance, 6-2, 6-7 (15-17), 6-3, outlasting her reputation for being physically buff but mentally fragile.

“I haven’t always been known for my competitiveness out there, to really fight hard,” Stosur said.

She added: “It’s definitely very rewarding. I know now I can do it.”

Which comes first, self-belief or success? It’s the chicken-egg question of sports. For Janko Tipsarevic, lighting his pilot light of certainty has led him, at 27, to a career-high ranking of No 20.

“My mental strength is better this year because of the determination that I want to improve,” Tipsarevic said. “When you have certain goals, good things are happening to you because you’re making the right decisions without making an effort.”

Fish made the effort to get physically fit and found that the discipline required to lose 30 pounds carried over to the court. He sticks to his game plans the way he does to his diet and has diligently pursued intermediate goals, which is how he found himself the top-ranked American, at eighth overall, in the Open.

In the fourth round, Fish ran into Tsonga, who did a better job of ignoring the gusty winds, the loud crowd and the cumulative fatigue of another endless summer. He removed the clutter from his head, clearing his path to success.


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