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Why Murray and Djokovic need more emotional training

ESPN staff
February 1, 2015
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray showed their emotions in the Australian Open final © AP
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My, tennis is an emotional game: the most draining of them all in terms of mood swings and putting yourself through the wringer. If you put all the plot twists and emotional handbrake turns of the Australian Open men's singles final into a soap opera nobody could bear to watch. They'd say it went too far. Unfair on the poor viewer.

Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray in four operatic sets on Sunday, with Djokovic writhing free of the clutches of defeat again and again to win 7-6 6-7 6-3 6-0. He looked all over a loser at several points in the match, but still had the physical and emotional reserves to bounce back.

They train hard, these boys, and these are the occasions they train for: ferocious, punishing sets of hundred of strokes, in which a single point is the only difference between one player and another. They take to heart the practice of the great Olympic decathlete Daley Thompson, who always trained twice on Christmas Day because he knew his opponents wouldn't train at all.

Djokovic responds to the horrendous tensions of big-time matches by going floppy

They work and work to achieve the maximum level of strength-plus-endurance that the male human body can sustain, and yet the biggest points of all so often seem to be decided by pure emotion. Tennis is a game about emotional intelligence.

Djokovic roared out of the traps like a greyhound with an early sight of the hare, overwhelming Murray. But Murray fought against any resulting sense of inadequacy and counter-punched brilliantly. He got back into the set - but then lost the tie-breaker. Yet he still had what was needed to break at the start of the next set. And then fell back to the resurgent Djoko. And then reversed this reverse (still with me?) to take the tie-break.

The twists and turns of this match demanded emotional stamina every bit as much as the physical kind. Perhaps the next step forward for the great players who contest the big finals is a form of emotional training beyond that of the sports psychologists, something as gruelling and as well-tailored for the individual as those produced by their fitness coaches.

How would you do that, I wonder? Perhaps every other day you could row and reconcile with your partner (life rather than doubles) six or seven times in an evening, until such things are as normal to you as a session on the stepping-machine.

Andy Murray appears to thrive on self-hatred © Getty Images
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In practice the top players, with the help of their teams, evolve a way of coping with what happens on court and then living with the after-effects. You can't shut yourself off from the strong emotions of a grand-slam final: the trick is to use them right, as something that help you win.

This final could be understood as contrast in emotional method: self-pity vs self-hatred - and in the end self-pity won the day. Self-hatred has long been Murray's tactic of choice. This has frequently been counter-productive, and under the coaching of Ivan Lendl he used it noticeably less - and has two grand-slam victories to prove it.

Under Amelie Mauresmo, he has sought greater calm, and the vitriolic self-loathing of old has not been evident. But the wild reproaches he heaps on himself are still there and they still work. That's how he pulled himself through the second set and gained the upper hand in the decisive third set.

Djokovic responds to the horrendous tensions of these big-time matches by going floppy. Reeling and writhing and fainting in coils, like the Mock-Turtle in Alice in Wonderland. Poor Nole! His little body can't cope with this! He has been known to retire even on big occasions, including a Wimbledon semi-final in which he was suffering from a blistered toe. I've seen him chuck away a set 6-0 because he could no longer cope with the unfair demands placed on him by the sport of tennis.

This time with his legs flailing like an egg-whisk, it seemed all up with him at the start of the second set and then again at the start of the third. A player less experienced than Murray - and with less court-time against Djokovic - would think, this is easy, I've got him, it's all over. But that's not how it works.

A point or two after watching the ball sail past because he could hardly move, he was chasing down a drop-shot, moving so fast Usain Bolt would have struggled to keep up. It's all in the way these things happen to affect you but after looking like a broken man halfway through the third set, he won 12 of the next 13 games - and that was enough. In the end, self-pity left self-hatred reeling.

No sport is quite so exhausting to watch as tennis, because human empathy insists that you feel all the emotions of the players

The tournament was a triumph for Murray, though it certainly won't feel like it for quite a while. After a difficult and vexatious 2014, dominated by his struggle to recover from back surgery, Murray showed that he is back at the top of tennis, just where he belongs. Just a step or two below the very summit.

As for Djokovic, this could be a big year for him. After the anarchy of 2014, in which each slam was won by a different player, this could be the time for Djokovic to put some sense back into the sport's dominance hierarchy. That was his eighth slam: I wouldn't bet against him getting into double figures by the end of the year.

No sport is quite so exhausting to watch as tennis, because human empathy insists that you feel all the emotions of the players yourself. We are constantly amazed at their physical ability to play great shots at the end of a great final. We should also give them credit for their ability to cope - again and again with the powerful and eternally fluctuating emotions of the great occasions. Because that's what gives tennis champions the edge over the rest.

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