“Maybe I’ll try again later. God, it’s killing me,” a tearful Roger Federer said as he aborted a runner-up speech during the 2009 Australian Open final presentation. Tennis, and more specifically Rafa Nadal, had landed a huge mental blow to Wimbledon’s favorite son. The watching billions could see the soul of the broken Swiss live in technicolor. Is there a more brutal sport post-match when instant quotes and corporate duties must be addressed?
The U.S. Open was not shy in promoting its 50th anniversary of equal prize money for both male and female competitors, but that was of no value to the pain on display for defeated finalist Aryna Sabalenka. After failing to quell the home support and Coco Gauff, the Belarusian was asked what she had gained from 2023 (apart from a number one ranking and lots of cash). Here’s a clue: she didn’t know after a crushing three-set loss. Tennis is a mental game that mauls the emotions.
Interviews with Grand Slam losers are probably the most visceral show of despair. Andy Murray’s defeat at Wimbledon in 2012 against Federer was his fourth Slam final loss in a row. He cried like Roger. Novak Djokovic wanted that French Open so badly in 2015 against Stan Wawrinka. The crowd sensed it and clapped for their lives to lift the Serb’s spirits. Ons Jabeur’s brilliance goes missing at the business end of Slams, replaced by an impostor more grotesque than Rudyard Kipling could have imagined. She was overcome by that well of despair before the end.
Tennis is the toughest game when the inner turmoil becomes public, a showreel of the soul that feeds off inhibitions and maximises them for the world to see. When the wheels are coming off, the player is exposed, naked of control, on the court. The opponent just has to keep the ball in play if there’s a meltdown at the other end. The Australian cricket captain Steven Waugh used to unleash the power of “mental disintegration” tactics. Tennis players can defeat themselves.
Rawness of defeat is what all professionals go through, but to suck it all up themselves without trainers, colleagues, coaches or friends is a big ask. While the winners clamber into the stands to celebrate with loved ones, it’s a stark and empty view for the vanquished. Sabalenka was in pieces at the end of her defeat to Gauff. The footage of the world’s best player smashing a racket and dumping it in a bin following the public torture of laughing-cum-crying through the ceremony is a testament to that. Nothing is private anymore.
“Every point is a tough decision so they have to be really strong. I always say that in my sport sometimes we hide behind each other, we can always find excuses in success and in failure and in this way tennis is phenomenal because you have to be really strong,” said football coach Jose Mourinho. He has a point.
“It’s one-on-one out there, man. There ain’t no hiding. I can’t pass the ball,” remarked Pete Sampras about the specific challenge that the sport presents. Andre Agassi posited that the sport mirrors life through its lexicon. “Advantage, service, fault, break, love” are the tenets of everyday existence, Agassi argued. Any hour can become the finest or darkest depending on the choices made.
The titanic battle is the inner game rather than one solely against the rival. The sheer level of courage needed to stop the internal noise is stark. When Federer played Nadal again in the Australian Open final, eight years after that crushing loss, the Swiss took a different approach.
“I told myself to play free,” he said. “You play the ball, you don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I didn’t want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa. I think it was the right decision at the right time.”
The torment that tennis brings can be seen in the most natural of talents. Nick Kyrgios admitted: “In the heat of the battle, I’m two different people. Sometimes I do cross the line, that’s just my passion, that’s my emotion. Millions of people watching you and you’re not playing your best. Wouldn’t you be frustrated and angry?”
There is a fascination now at how players react to even a lost break of serve (see Djokovic’s racquet smash on the net past at Wimbledon). Spectators can look directly into the soul of the troubled loner across the net. The battle for imposing superiority is constantly being replayed. Momentum swings can be constant. It’s stressful to lose control so fast. The screams at the player’s box are desperate pleas for help.
“Like I said on the court, it would have been nice for both of us to win, but there’s no draws in tennis. It’s brutal sometimes,” said Federer after winning his first Slam in five years. He knows.