What motivates tennis players

As players strive to become No. 1 and win major titles, the vast majority of them look to full-blooded competitiveness for motivation, while a significant minority are driven by the challenge of mastering technique, tactics, and all the other requisites of the sport. And the tiny remainder simply relish hanging out with other players. But there are some who are fuelled by one of the most human of motives: revenge.

For youngsters like Sloane Stephens, money is also one of the motivating factors. “Did you see that check that lady handed me? Like, yes. Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will,” said the American, when asked if winning the U.S. Open title increased her hunger for more.   -  Getty Images

World Tennis, the most authoritative tennis magazine from 1953 to 1991, once carried a thought-provoking article about what motivated world-class players. Not surprisingly, full-blooded competitiveness energised the vast majority to try to become No. 1 and win major titles. A significant minority, though, were motivated by the challenge of mastering technique, tactics, and all the other requisites of our multi-faceted sport. The tiny remainder were social animals. They simply relished hanging out with other players as they globe-trotted from tournament to tournament.

Pancho Gonzalez, Jimmy Connors, Rafael Nadal, Billie Jean King, Monica Seles and Serena Williams clearly fall into the fierce competitor category. Bill Tilden, Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova and Justine Henin, ultra-talented but also leave-no-stone-unturned athletes, epitomise the second group. Fred Stolle, the genial, fair-dinkum Australian, exemplifies the last category. Roger Federer’s genius must be that he’s motivated in all three ways.

Ons Jabeur... ethnicity and nationality fired up the Tunisian during her dream debut at the 2017 French Open.   -  Getty Images

Let’s not forget another motivation on the minds of rising stars: money. When U.S. Open titlist Sloane Stephens was asked if winning one Grand Slam increased her hunger for more, she retorted, “Of course, girl. Did you see that check that lady handed me? Like, yes. Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis, I don’t know what will.”

That check was for a cool $3.7 million.

Ethnicity and nationality fired up Ons Jabeur in her dream debut at the 2017 French Open. The 22-year-old from Tunisia scored a big 6-4, 6-3 upset over sixth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova to become the first Arab woman to gain the third round at a Grand Slam tournament. “When I win, I represent the Arab world. When I lose, I try to be just Ons Jabeur,” she explained. “We are small country. For me, it’s not only about Tunisia anymore, and it’s all about the Arab countries, the African continent.”

A psychological ploy can do motivational wonders. During Australia’s 1973 Davis Cup final victory over the defending champion, U.S., the rollicking boys from Down Under partied hard. All-time great Rod Laver, then past his prime, didn’t feel well the next day. He had to play Stan Smith, who was No. 1 the year before and had beaten Laver the previous two times. John Newcombe recalled, “I said, ‘Rocket, you don’t look too good.’ He said, ‘No, I feel terrible.’ I said, ‘That’s a pity because I hear that Stan says there’s no way you can beat him.’ That was the end of that. His eyes got intense, he stood right up, and he went out and gave Stan a whipping.”

Maria Sharapova... “I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”   -  Getty Images

Tennis players are also fuelled by one of the most human of motives: revenge. After Bjorn Borg humiliated Connors in the 1978 Wimbledon final, Jimbo swore revenge. “I’ll follow that sonofabitch to the ends of the earth,” he vowed. “Every tournament he plays, I’ll be waiting. Every time he turns around, he’ll see my shadow across his … I’m going to dog him because I know that what we do in the next few years is going to be remembered long after we’re both six feet underground.”

Although Connors avenged that bitter loss at the 1978 U.S. Open, Borg retaliated by winning their last 10 matches.

In her new memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far, Maria Sharapova recounted how hate and revenge likely account for Serena Williams’ beating her in their last 18 matches. After the 17-year-old Russian shocked defending champion Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final, she entered the locker room and heard Williams crying. “Guttural sobs, the sort that make you heave for air, the sort that scares you,” Sharapova wrote. “It went on and on. I got out as quickly as I could, but she knew I was there. People often wonder why I have had so much trouble beating Serena; she’s owned me in the past 10 years. My record against her is 2 and 19.

“In analysing this,” Sharapova continued, “people talk about Serena’s strength, her serve and confidence, how her particular game matches up to my particular game, and sure there is truth to all of that; but, to me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”

Can Sharapova, a ferocious competitor and self-motivator herself, break her incredible losing streak when Serena returns to the WTA Tour in January?

Nick Kyrgios of Australia with a boy enters the court for the men’s singles final against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the 2017 China Open. The Aussie’s love of kids is well known. “I get more happiness from helping kids out and watching them succeed than I do from my own wins on the tennis tour,” he says.   -  Getty Images

In total contrast, nothing has motivated the brilliant but troubled Nick Kyrgios except occasionally playing a superstar on center court. Kyrgios upset Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic the first time he faced each of them. His roller-coaster career has consisted of sensational wins and shocking losses, frequent injuries, match retirements, fines for misconduct and lack of effort, and cathartic, McEnroe-like media conferences. Confessions like “I’m not dedicated to the game at all” and “I don’t really like tennis” and “Becoming No. 1 doesn’t really excite me at all” infuriated his many critics and tested the patience of even his most fervent fans.

Leave it to the controversial and unpredictable Kyrgios, though, to create an entirely new category of motivation. On www.playersvoice.com.au, the 22-year-old Australian recently wrote:

“You hear people talk about being motivated for their kids, or a cause, or something more than just themselves. It’s inspiration, pure and simple, and it gives them focus when times are tough. There’s a reason underpinning everything. It’s a higher purpose than just collecting a pay cheque. I haven’t had that, and I’ve always been envious of those who did. I think I’ve found my purpose in the last couple of months.”

This “higher purpose” had been gestating ever since Kyrgios experienced a vision a couple of years ago. His dream was “to build a facility for disadvantaged and underprivileged kids where they could hang out, be safe and feel like they were part of a family. There’d be tennis courts and basketball courts and a gym and an oval to kick the footy. There’d be things to eat and beds to sleep in.”

The altruism of Kyrgios comes partly from his love of kids. “I get more happiness from helping kids out and watching them succeed than I do from my own wins on the tennis tour,” he explained. “It’s always been that way.”

But what really turned his vision into reality was Piotr, a little boy with terminal brain cancer. Instead of a practice session before an Australian Open match last January, Nick hit some balls with Piotr. Nick recalled, “Piotr said it was one of the best days of his life but, honestly, I’m not sure which of us had the better day! It was awesome.”

Piotr passed away a few months later, but “I remember Piotr with happiness and sadness,” wrote Kyrgios.

Collaborating with Kyrgios on this new facility are his Malaysian-born mother Norlaila and his brother Cristos. The sports complex will be located in a lower socio-economic area in Melbourne so kids can easily get there.

“I don’t reckon there can be anything better in life than giving kids a chance when they otherwise wouldn’t have had one,” enthused Kyrgios, who plans to be hands-on there whenever he’s home. “If my vision is realised, it’s my hope that I’ll be remembered for this more than anything I have done or will do on the tennis court.”

Kyrgios admitted, “I’ve got lots left to learn about life.” But with a new project and a new purpose, the best may be yet to come for the newly inspired Kyrgios both on and off the courts.