Mental battles abound

For all subtlety of stroke and soundness of technique, victory is designed, and defeat arranged, in the head, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Sometimes it is the opponent that freezes a player, sometimes it is occasion that disrupts the normal working of the mind.

Imagine if we could peer into the working brain of the sportsperson, see the grey cells conspiring, note where resolve grows and doubt collects, where fear lurks and intelligence glows. Imagine if we could understand why some athletes collect themselves more ably, bringing their best day after day, and why some athletes fail to be the model warrior. After all, for all subtlety of stroke and soundness of technique, victory is designed, and defeat arranged, in the head.

All Wimbledon, the frailty and the force of the mind has been everywhere. Before us, wills have firmed and spirit has dripped away. Amelie Mauresmo, a fragile old favourite of psychologists, collapsed 1-6 in the third set against Nicole Vaidisova, and it was hard to watch.

Somewhere in Mauresmo’s mind, in a corner where self-confidence lives, there is a leak. She believes in herself, yet she is not sure. She has won Wimbledon, last year, yet lost to Vaidisova twice in succession before this match. With the delightful Frenchwoman this battle to banish doubt and assert herself is often written on her taut face.

To be dismissive of Mauresmo as simply brittle is easy, yet as a description it is incomplete; after all what measure of will must it have taken to over-ride her natural weakness to win two Grand Slams?

Sometimes it is the opponent that freezes a player, sometimes it is occasion that disrupts the normal working of the mind. Vaidisova was untroubled by Mauresmo, but in the next round, the enormity of the moment, playing for a place in the semi-finals, clearly unnerved her.

Up 5-3 in the third set against Ana Ivanovic, despite three match points, Vaidisova choked. Always players know, closing out a match, that final shutting of the door, asks for the most courage. At 5-3 you are expected to win, you are in position to win, but do you believe you can win? An Australian with a chance to beat John McEnroe once at Wimbledon started thinking of his post-match press conference. All manner of thoughts invade the mind and jostle focus.

Vaidisova stuttered and lost. She will feel desolate at a chance gone, yet not feel alone. Ivanovic’s nerves showed early on in her next match against Venus Williams. But these girls are starting out. Inexperience is their temporary excuse. Daniela Hantuchova, 24, is a seven-year, seen-everything pro. She has no excuse. When Serena had a calf spasm, the rain breaks helped her but so did Hantuchova who did not jerk Serena around, did not test her opponent’s leg, did not elongate points smartly. Serena must have smiled inside at Hantuchova’s hand-wringing, nervous stutter. The sisters are used to the obeisance of their opponents.

Playing the Williams sisters can be intimidating, for their strength of shot, and sheer cock-sureness (they walk on every court as if it belongs to them), and ability to win when overweight, injured or out-of-practice, makes other players reconsider their own ability. What does the mind say when faced with a Williams: “I’m going to win”, “I’m ready to win”, or “I hope I don’t lose"?

The sisters themselves are formidable mentally. As Venus said prior to the final: “No matter what we’re ranked, no matter where we are, no matter what the next person says, ultimately we just believe in ourselves and I think that’s what makes the difference.”

One piece of evidence of this arrived in the third round. The Japanese player, Akiko Morigami, served for the match at 5-3 in the third set against Venus but was broken to love, and the American’s explanation was simple: “I just went into another gear.” In this time of crisis, she did not retreat, or play safe, she attacked. As Venus said when asked what she told herself: “Just hit it hard. Just go for the lines.”

On the men’s side, the greatest mental advancement was made by the amusing Novak Djokovic, whose racquet seems dipped in oil for the ball just seems to slide smoothly off it. The young Serb as tactician is an entertaining work in quick progress, but here in Wimbledon it was the warrior in him that developed most.

Against Hewitt, and Baghdatis he chiselled out hard, sweaty, painful wins, four hours and 12 minutes against the former, five hours exactly, against the latter. So many players have pleasing strokes, Djokovic suggests he has a heart as well.

It was notable that Hewitt, who hammered Djokovic at the U.S. Open last year, now said when asked if he saw a change in the Serb: “He didn’t try too hard in New York last year. That’s probably the biggest difference.” Djokovic himself seemed to have got the message about committing himself to a match, understanding from watching his peers what sort of hardness of competitor is required to win. As he said of two of his leathery peers: “Nadal is a baseline player who is very strong, big competitor, he has a mental strength kind of like Hewitt because they both fight for every point like it’s a match point.” Now maybe so will he.

Of course, not every defeat at Wimbledon was on account of a brain fade, not every victory shows marvellous muscularity of mind. Some losses are simply hard to explain. Justine Henin’s collapse against Marion Bartoli makes no sense, for her form was sound and her spirit for a fight is legendary. At best we might say her desperation to win Wimbledon, the only Slam to elude her, had distracted her.

Most confusing of all remains Maria Sharapova. Almost a year ago, after nine Grand Slams of waiting, the Russian won her second major title at the U.S. Open. It might have been safe to assume she had finally understood how to win with her ungainly, gawky game.

Except in the next three majors Sharapova has suffered defeats whose one-sidedness defies explanation. In the Australian final, she lost 6-1, 6-2 to Serena, in the French semi-finals she lost 6-2, 6-1 to Ana Ivanovic, in Wimbledon’s fourth round she lost 6-1, 6-3 to Venus.

Conventional wisdom has it that Sharapova is no mental wimp, that she in fact has a pugilist’s mentality. But what now are we to make of these whippings? Is she possibly not a big-time, big-match player, but can that be said about a two-time Grand Slam title winner? Has she played her best when it mattered now and then, but not often enough? Is Sharapova in fact a decent athlete who is playing above herself by reaching so far or a great player performing below par frequently?

Perhaps Sharapova’s issues are only partially mental (though each humiliation digs a chunk out of the confidence). Perhaps it is merely a case of her method, all flailing elbows and knees, not being up to the keen inspection of her peers. Perhaps she is simply not a good enough player. The Russian’s game, this year, has appeared all excessive grunt and inadequate effect. She is making a noise but not an impact. At the U.S. Open, where she is defending champion, she will have to reverse that.