The ‘Golden Rule’ of tennis, the one simple rule that, if followed, will keep you out of more trouble than anything else is: Never do anything on court that doesn’t help you winGranted, it sounds absurdly obvious, but few people consistently follow it. Adhering to this rule requires one to test any action before taking it with the simple question, “Will this action help me win?” If the answer is not yes, don’t do it.

The great players rarely lose track, at least at some lower level of consciousness, that the object of the game is to win the match. The average player, by contrast, often seems mindless of this elementary fact. Yet even professionals get caught up in the emotions of the match on occasion

A truly bizarre example of what can happen when one does not apply this test was provided by my friend, Jeff Tarango, a brilliant, funny, Stanford-educated tennis professional at Wimbledon in 1996. Tarango, then 26 years old, had never before won a match at Wimbledon. But this year he was in the third round and had an excellent chance of getting to the round of 16 because he was playing Alexander Mronz of Germany, whose name in the tennis world is hardly a household (or for that matter, pronounceable) word.

During the course of the match, Tarango hit what he thought was an ace, but it was called a fault. After fruitlessly trying to convince the umpire to overrule the linesman, Tarango was heckled by the crowd as he walked into position for his second serve. Angrily he told them to “Shut up.” The umpire gave him a code violation for “audible obscenity.” Although it only amounted to a warning, this so infuriated Tarango that he demanded that the referee supervisor come to the court. The supervisor dutifully did so and told Tarango to continue playing. Tarango then called the umpire “the most corrupt official in the game” and was promptly assessed a point penalty for verbal abuse which cost him the game. At this Tarango shouted “That’s it. No way. That’s it.” He picked up his bags, stalked off the court, and entered the history books as the first player in the Open era to default himself at Wimbledon. To make matters worse (yes, it’s always possible), Tarango held a press conference at which he justified calling the umpire “corrupt” by accusing him, on the basis of hearsay, of having, in the past, ‘given’ matches to players who were his friends.

Now let’s tote up the damages. Tarango threw away an excellent chance to advance in the tournament since he was, after all, favored in the match. He was defaulted in his mixed doubles, which did not endear him to his partner. It cost him a lot of money which he could ill afford since he was not one of the stars of the game—total fines estimated in the neighborhood of $50,000 and additional prize money he might have won. Finally, his public image was not enhanced by making himself look like an overgrown brat who would have been well served by a few good spankings as a child. All in all it was not one of Tarango’s better afternoons, the object of the game (to win the match) having apparently slipped his mind.

With all these damages accruing as a result of his actions, one might reasonably wonder how a man of Tarango’s substantial intellect could have so completely lost track of his simple goal of winning the match? The answer is fear of failure (he was losing), exacerbated by the accumulated stress and emotion of the situation, drove his actions. Quitting was his unconscious way of escaping from a painfully stressful situation that he feared would end badly. If you don’t believe this, picture the following thought experiment: God appears over Tarango’s shoulder and whispers in his ear that he is guaranteed to win the match. Now what would Tarango have done? He might still have fought with the umpire, but I would bet a lot of money that he would have stuck around to win the match.

(Just for honesty’s sake, I must confess that during my playing career I did some things in tournaments that were almost as counterproductive as this Tarango story – though they were less dramatic.  So I am by no means taking a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Under sufficient pressure, most of us are capable of rather foolish actions.)

The great champions are different.

John McEnroe had a similar fiery temperament, but his situational judgment was usually able to retain its ultimate rationality even in the throes of emotionality and outcome uncertainty. Because at some deep level he sensed that he was going to win, he was able to comprehend where the line demarcating disaster was and exert enough self-control (although it didn’t look like it) to avoid crossing it. He got into emotional twits where he made unreasonable demands, berated linesmen and umpires, and threw matches into confusion, but he usually benefited from this behavior. His behavior intimidated linesmen into giving him the benefit of the doubt on close calls; it disturbed his opponents and put off their games; and McEnroe stimulated himself with adrenaline and often played better.

One year he did manage to get himself defaulted in the Australian Open, but he said after the match that he had been unaware of a recent rule change where the authorities had cut down by one the number of abuses a player was allowed before default. The progression toward default had formerly been ‘warning’, ‘point penalty’, ‘game penalty’, ‘DEFAULT’, but this had been changed to ‘warning’, ‘point penalty’, ‘DEFAULT’. McEnroe simply miscalculated and thought he could afford one more penalty. In contrast with Tarango, McEnroe may sometimes have looked like an uncontrolled, irrational wild man, but all the while he was carefully counting his penalties so that he could stop himself before he went too far. McEnroe didn’t often forget where his interests lie.

McEnroe was cunning in other ways about expressing his frustration and anger. He knew cursing and abusing umpires would lead to code violations. So instead of cursing them he would say things like, “You are so low that words can’t describe how low I think you are!” Of course this is every bit as insulting and hurtful as cursing the person, but it made the code violation difficult to pin on him.

We are often not as rational as we should be.

Human beings are supposed to be rational creatures, but too often our emotions drive our actions while our reasoning abilities are relegated to the back of the bus. This is frequently the case in tennis matches because the one-on-one aspect of tennis competition makes it an inherently stressful and emotional situation. Errant emotions during match-play tempt us to forget our objectives (winning the match) and engross ourselves in anger, personal antagonism, defeatism, excuse-making, or other counter-productive but stress-reducing mental states. Keeping in mind our Golden Rule test of “Will This Help Me Win?” can help ward off such debilitating and destructive mental states.

Leave a Comment