The brain surgeons of tennis

No one has tested Federer or Nadal for their IQ Quotient. One suspects that if you did, the scores would be quite high. Humble men as they are, it would not occur to them to mention it even if it was in the 140s.

Rafael Nadal is Rafael Nadal because mentally he has already decided he can and will win every match. Roger Federer is no different. Unhurried, sublime, smooth as silk in his returns, he is the dangerous silent executioner.   -  AFP

Tennis is every bit a cerebral game as it is a physical one. The relentless physical intensity and jaw-dropping returns of Rafael Nadal interspersed with drop shots that take your breath away are only half the story. The real Nadal game, as Vijay Amritraj once evocatively explained to me, “is between his ears.”

Nadal is Nadal because mentally he has already decided he can and will win every match, and every moment of every game of every set of every match he is exploiting either the weaknesses he has already noted or ones he has just identified from the corner of his eye as he goes up for a smash or stretches to return a cross-court shot at an impossible angle.

Roger Federer is no different. Unhurried, sublime, smooth as silk in his returns, he is the dangerous silent executioner. If he cannot outplay you at first, he will out-think you, then he will outplay you. In the end he will prevail, not necessarily because he was better on the day, but because he had decided he would and had determined exactly how to do so. The brain, in short, will always find the path the body cannot. Except, of course, on clay against Rafa Nadal. That Federer knows that now that is a mountain too high to climb, and he has listened to his head and let it go.

No one has tested Federer or Nadal for their IQ Quotient. One suspects that if you did, the scores would be quite high. Humble men as they are, it would not occur to them to mention it even if it was in the 140s.

Not so for Marion Bartoli of France. She figures that’s one statistic she has every right to flaunt. At 175, her self-confessed IQ is higher than Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, to name just three (and anyone else you or I know). “I did the test when I was younger, and I have been sort of hiding it,” Bartoli says.

The IQ level Bartoli claims is usually associated with the best chess grandmasters, the men and women who reside in the rarefied heights of this most cerebral of sports. Bobby Fischer at 180, Garry Kasparov at 185 and Judith Polgar at 170 are in Bartoli’s range.

Andy Roddick has been tested in more recent times and clocked in at a pretty high 133. He confesses drily, however, that he cannot claim to be the brains of the family as Mrs Roddick bests him on that count with her score of 136.

Meet Dr Mihaela Buzarnescu

Intelligence and IQ is one thing; education at the highest level, however, is another. There are indeed a few players on the circuit who are voracious readers, but it takes something special to compete on the ATP and WTA tours day after day all year round and yet find the time and motivation to work on a PhD.

Tennis, however, boasts of two such individuals.

Last week at Roland Garros, spectators sat up to watch a (not so) young lady scything through the early part of the women’s draw, eventually inflicting a 6-3 7-5 defeat on Elina Svitolina, one of the favourites for the title after the first round exit of Jelena Ostapenko. She then fell to a rampaging Madison Keys in the fourth round.

Mihaela Buzarnescu was a name not many fans were familiar with, and they could hardly be faulted for their ignorance. She has been around since 2004, but managed her first ever Grand Slam match win at the 2018 Roland Garros. Her first Grand Slam appearance was at the 2017 US Open.

So what’s the story of this 30-year old from Romania?

Buzarnescu was recognised as a top talent when she was a teenager and was ranked as high as fourth in the world as a junior. At the prestigious Orange Bowl junior tournament in 2005, she beat Agnieszka Radwanska before falling to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. But here the career trajectories with her vanquished opponents diverged.

A shoulder injury kept her off tour for six months when she should have been transitioning from the junior circuit to the professional ranks. In that time, sponsorships from Adidas and Wilson lapsed, and she received no financial support from any other sources. Then she hurt her left knee, and two unsuccessful surgeries later and having broken into the top 150, she was again forced out of the sport.

So, unable to go out on the courts, she decided to study and enrolled for a PhD in sports science, studying the psychomotor development of junior tennis players between the ages of 12 and 14. The idea was that maybe it would be helpful in getting her a job someday. She received her doctoral degree in December 2016.

The academic achievement now behind her, a desperate Buzarnescu, eager to give her career one more shot, started playing through the knee pain. Suddenly, while playing competitively in a Dutch tennis league, the pain almost miraculously disappeared. She got a new coach and went back on the circuit.

Buzarnescu won 20 straight matches on the ITF circuit last June and July, including titles in Hungary, Turkey, Spain and Germany. The streak took her into the top 150 from just inside the top 400. At the US Open, where she had won the junior doubles title 11 years earlier, she qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw. Understandably, on this occasion she did not make it past the opening round.

After reaching the semifinals of a WTA tournament in Linz, Austria, in October, Buzarnescu cracked the top 100 for the first time, becoming the third oldest player ever to do so. Then she generated one of the fastest ascents inside the Top 100.

She reached her first WTA final in January in Tasmania and her second in Prague in April, pushing Petra Kvitova to three sets before losing the final. She arrived at Roland Garros seeded 31st.

She may not have conquered Paris on her first attempt, but the talent and intent that she displayed in making up for the lost years, means that tennis fans can be sure they have not yet seen the best of 30-year old Dr Mihaela Buzarnescu.

The first doctor of tennis

Buzarnescu is, however, not the first tennis player to combine the sport with academic excellence. The credit for that must go to Mikhail Youzhny of Russia.

The 35-year-old Youzhny began studying for the degree in 2005 when he was just 23, knowing that with limited free time as he competed on the ATP World Tour 11 months of the year, it would take him longer than the usual three-year period to complete it. Youzhny’s thesis explored the philosophy and attitudes of tennis, and he hoped it would be of benefit to aspiring coaches and players.

In 2011, six years on, at a ceremony held at the Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism, the Russian tennis player answered approximately 20 questions about his work before all 16 members of the scientific council approved his PhD. The degree was conferred by the University of Moscow.

Just to demonstrate how it’s possible to be a top-level sportsperson and fulfil one’s academic aspirations, in January 2008, midway through his PhD degree, Youzhny rose to world No.8, the highest ranking he would achieve during the course of his long career.

Asked to explain how it’s possible to do both, Youzhny explained: “I didn’t work on the degree when I was at tournaments, but when I came back to Russia I would work on my degree and write about how I see situations: how I feel and explain how I feel about the attitude of tennis, the pluses and minuses, why you have to do certain things. I feel good because I took the time to do what I wanted to do, I finished it, and I’m happy with that.”

Youzhny and Buzarnescu are, however, not alone in showing that sports, intellect and a good education can go together.

India’s latest leg-spin sensation Yuzvendra Chahal was first a FIDE-rated international chess player before he took to cricket. The cerebral is a big part of his game when he outfoxes batsmen.

Bill Bradley served a three-term stint as a US senator from New Jersey after 12 years as a member of the New York Knicks in the NBA. Before his pro career, Bradley graduated magna cum laude at Princeton followed by a Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Oxford.

Myron Rolle, an NFL player, was not very stressed when he was cut by his team the Tennessee Titans. After all, he had some fallback options. A Rhodes scholar, Rolle received his Master’s in medical anthropology at Oxford, after graduating pre-med at Florida State University – in just 2.5 years. This in a sport known more for injuring brains than celebrating them.

There is a lesson in this for all aspiring tennis players and indeed all sportspersons. Not everyone becomes a Nadal, a Federer, a Djokovic, a Serena, a Michael Jordan, a Virat Kohli or a Joe Montana. So what do you do when you have had your turn as a moderately successful player in the sport of your choice with 50 years of your life ahead of you?

Investing a few months of the year and a couple of hours a day to get an education and credentials that survive the decline of youth may well be something worth considering as young players set out to achieve their dream of 21 Grand Slams or its equivalent in their sport.

An amusing postscript

So what happens when heavenly tennis, intellect and high education all show up on court together?

In 2012, I was privileged to be sitting just above the net cord level on centre court watching Roger Federer play one of the most sublime matches in his career. I have never seen Federer play better. Not a single return travelled more than two inches above the net during the course of the three sets. Not one. On the other side of the net, battling for a semi final spot was Dr Mikhail Youzhny.

At 6-1, 6-2, 5-1, the serve was back with Youzhny. As Federer prepared to receive the serve from the deuce court, Youzhny laid down his racquet turned back towards the royal box where Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf were seated, and asked Agassi: “Andre, you tell me, what can I do?” As the Wimbledon centre court burst out in mirth, Agassi answered with a smile: “Nothing, Mikhail, nothing.”

Federer won the set 6-2.

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