Some years ago I was chatting with all-time great Bobby Riggs and asked him how he would rank the great players, since he competed against many of them. Who were the greatest champions of all time? His answer was interesting. He said, “It depends on how you define ‘great.’” Elaborating he said, “If you define it as who was the best player on his best day the answer would be different from who was the best over a long period of time.” “For example,” he continued, “on his best day Lew Hoad could beat anybody. But he couldn’t get himself up to compete every day, so I don’t consider him a great champion at all. The great ones, like Gonzales, Budge, Kramer, Tilden, etc., could do it almost every time they stepped on court and could continue doing it for years.”
Of course great players must have unusual physical and mental talents, but Rigg’s comments bring to mind one mental talent that is often overlooked. This is the ability to withstand stress over long periods of time, and tennis at the highest levels is very stressful. Most people can’t withstand stress very well for an entire match, much less for years on end. They tend to fall apart rather quickly when they are playing below par, when their opponents are playing well, or when the breaks are going against them. By comparison, all the top pros can certainly handle this kind of stress for a few matches in a row or for a few weeks. But this stress is cumulative and builds day to day and week to week. Only the greatest can withstand it for years on end. This is one of the things that separates today’s top players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, from today’s awfully good players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And it separates Stefi Graf, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert from almost greats like Justine Henin and Monica Seles. Among the men, Federer and Nadal can take it for years whereas the others, are sporadic competitors.
To see how this stress develops, picture life on the tour for the top pro players. They are under constant pressure to perform. They play a tournament almost every week or two and are usually being paid substantial appearance fees, so they need to win. In addition, winning improves (or at least maintains) their rankings, gets them prize money, helps their relationships with their sponsors and the press, and just feels good. But everyone on the tour is dangerous so they must remain constantly sharp. If they relax their vigilance, even a little, they will be out and explaining to the press why they are slipping. To make matters more difficult, they are constantly traveling, packing and unpacking in different hotel rooms, getting used to time changes, adjusting to new court surfaces and conditions, and dealing with business and personal problems (wives or girlfriends). Especially vexing is the almost constant need to nurse or recover from small (and sometimes large) injuries. They worry about and test the condition of their bodies and must decide whether to rest an injury (and get out of practice) or work out hard (and risk further injury). All the while they must keep winning.
An average tournament day might begin (hopefully after a good night’s sleep) with a careful breakfast, some stretching, and a morning hit, all in preparation for an afternoon match. They can’t sightsee or do too much because they must conserve themselves for the upcoming match. Their day is overhung with some level of anxiety and nervousness because the match looms in front of them, and they don’t want to lose it but know they easily could. Lunch is a little tricky because they don’t usually know exactly when they will be playing. It might, for example, be third match on the stadium court, but they don’t know how long the matches in front of them will last. They have to be conservative and assume the matches will be over quickly and prepare for this. If they don’t and end up having to go on court with a belly full of food or otherwise unprepared it could cost them the match. So they take a guess and prepare accordingly. Now they must sit around and wait, maybe watching the match in front of them and hoping it will end within a reasonable range of their estimate and schedule.
This usually means they are pulling for the preceding match to end in straight sets. They’d also just like to get the match over with so they can escape the anxiety and relax. They often find themselves sweating out a second set as one player wins the first but is in danger of losing the second. Worst case: their player has chances but chokes, loses the second and the match progresses into a long, see-saw third. Now they have to consider having power bars or a snack since their lunch plan did not take into account this long wait. And maybe they even need a little hit to loosen up or a visit to the trainer for treatment or tape. In any case, they spend the day emotionally on edge preparing to play.
After the match, assuming they won it, they have a wonderful feeling of relief and relaxation. Winning feels good and the press conference is enjoyable (a lot better than it would have been if they lost). Afterward it’s back to the trainer for treatment and maybe a massage. With the day mostly gone it will soon be dinner-time. They go out to a restaurant or eat at the hotel, but must be careful with what they eat because of nutritional considerations. They might even have a glass or two of wine, but cannot overdo or go out partying because of the match coming up on the next day. By now the euphoria of the last win is over and the next match looms large. And since the best players tend to be in tournaments until the later rounds, this scenario lasts most of the week and almost every week.
Of course there are breaks and days that are different from the norm, but week in and week out the lifestyle restrictions, match preparations, and stress are wearing. After awhile they may ask themselves if they are missing living a real life, and many of them want out. Some leave the tour prematurely for periods of time (McEnroe, Borg, Henin, Capriati) while others are sporadic in putting out their maximum efforts. This is not a knock on any of these wonderful pros, who are all certainly extraordinary people, but there is another level. Only the very toughest, like Federer and Nadal, can keep it up match after match, week after week, and year after year, and this, to me, puts them in the very greatest category.