Keeping emotions in check: Knowing how to channel aggression on court is what separates the good from the best
Some players have become just as famous for their outbursts on court as they have for their game, perhaps none more so than John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
Some players have become just as famous for their outbursts on court as they have for their game, perhaps none more so than John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors
Blaming external conditions: opponents, line judges, chair umpires, crowds and even weather for one’s rage only serves to shift all the blame from oneself, taking away from any room for self-improvement
Anger, channeled correctly, can turn into the kind of aggression that improves serves, games, and focus; it is finding that delicate balance between rage and raw adrenaline that separates the good from the best
That some sportsmen - and women - can be hot-headed is no secret. Some players have become just as famous for their outbursts on court as they have for their game, perhaps none more so than John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
At the ATP Challenger Bengaluru Open, I witnessed not one, but two matches that were all but lost with on-court outbursts. Czechia’s Vaclav Safranek, locked in a battle and being sent through the wringer by Japan’s Yuichi Sugita, was being tested to the hilt, with an agile, quick-moving Sugita serving flawlessly throughout. Perhaps it was the fact that he had been pushed, perhaps it was the heat - or perhaps it was just the player himself. Even through the second set, Safranek looked as though he had still been trying, in some way, to keep himself in the game. And then, pushed completely to the wall by Sugita, it was as if the Czech fell apart. Skying balls into the park in rage, Safranek exchanged a few words with the chair umpire, and with the spectators around. It was clear: the match had been all but lost.
Sugita had already looked more convincing, fitter, even moving quicker than his Czech opponent. But even until the final games of the first set, with Sugita having been up a break of serve at one point, Safranek had looked firmly in the reckoning. Matching shot for shot, his serves just as fluid as his Japanese rival. The 25-year-old Safranek – despite being the younger, less experienced, and even lower-ranked of the two, had never really seemed the underdog.
Having sealed the first set 6-4 despite a solid fightback from his rival, Sugita, whose restrained reaction was simply restricted to bowing to a smattering of applause, was a study in contrast to his opponent on the other side of the net. Safranek, who had still kept his composure until then, began to get incensed. That anger began in the form of shots sent into the net, errors galore and finally, halfway through the second, and what would be the final set, Safranek skied a ball that went straight over the roof of the court, and into the expanse of the park behind it. And whether it was from that shot, or the beginning of the argument with the umpire, it was clear from deameanor alone that Sugita had won, even with half a set yet to be played. Until then, Safranek had still been in the reckoning – and that outburst – until then held in and translated into the game, had broken a dam.
On centre court, as the Safranek-Sugita battle was underway, was yet another study in just how keeping calm wins matches. Former Indian No 1 Saketh Myneni was playing the sixth seed Evgeny Donskoy, who in 2017 defeated Roger Federer in Dubai. Donskoy, the higher-ranked of the two players, looked physically in form, even moving better across the court at times than his Indian competitor. After Donskoy squandered the lead to Myneni despite looking to be in good nick, he became incensed fairly quickly, with angry yells directed at himself, the chair umpire, and no-one in general echoing across the KSLTA. On the other side of the net, Myneni simply continued his game seemingly unperturbed by the outbursts from the other side of the net. By the time the second set had begun, Myneni, who has struggled with a number of injuries over his career, even looked to be flagging slightly on movement. But the Indian eventually won the match having remained almost a picture of composure, with Donskoy mentally checking out of the match following his loud outburst at the chair umpire.
One might argue that anger is a sign of emotion, and that emotional investment in one’s game, and one’s sport, is essential to win. There is much to be said about the fact that it is important to be emotionally invested in what you are doing, and in the case of professional sportspersons, that is truer than ever. With adrenaline pumping, crowds watching, and indeed, the progression of your ranking based on your performance at these matches, it is no wonder that players do get emotional.
But many of the best players are in fact proof to the contrary. Rarely if ever has one seen the likes of Roger Federer or Venus Williams fly into an incandescent rage onto the court. And then again, there are those with tempers - but tempers that rarely, if ever, are directed at officials. A great example of this is the former World No 1 Andy Murray, who often directs his anger at himself, rather than anyone else on the court. And therein lies the rub. Having emotions run high on court is but natural and human, but using those emotions to lash out is one of the most counterproductive things a player could do.
In his autobiography, Serious, John McEnroe - who won a solid seven Grand Slam singles titles among his other laurels, said he would have been a “much better player” had he known how to control his temper on the court.
Neither is useful; the rage that is expressed externally: at chair umpires, line judges, ball boys and girls and surroundings is directly harmful to others, while internalised rage, far from helping a player’s game become more aggressive, can completely destroy focus and confidence - something that one could see translating directly from Safranek’s on-court demeanour to his eventually and rapidly deteriorating game.
There is perhaps no better example for losing one’s temper - and subsequently, concentration, than the black sheep of new-age tennis: Nick Kyrgios. The Australian has lost his temper all too often on court, losing concentration and tanking matches - most famously at the Shanghai Masters of 2016. Upset with a line call, the mercurial Australian berated the umpire, the crowd, and proceeded to intentionally tank the match. But for Kyrgios - and for McEnroe, and Ilie “Nasty” Nastase, that anger was routinely directed at others. There is also the case of Mikhail Youzhny, whose rage led him to harm himself with a racquet.
Both are harmful, but external rage is also significantly more counterproductive. Blaming external conditions: opponents, line judges, chair umpires, crowds and even weather for one’s rage only serves to shift all the blame from oneself, taking away from any room for self-improvement. While internalised anger might help in that regard - and indeed, many in the top leagues of the game can often be seen berating themselves after a particularly bad shot or point, it still takes away focus that is best applied on bringing oneself back into the reckoning.
One might argue - correctly so, that nobody’s perfect. Fans might rarely see it now, but the ever cool and composed Roger Federer has himself been victim to a rare on-court outburst. Playing Novak Djokovic at Miami in 2009, Federer committed forehand error after forehand error, and took the blame out on a racquet that ended up more bent than a contortionist in a carnival, a sight one might be more used to from his countryman Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss former No 1 would end up losing that match to Djokovic 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, unable to recover from that bout of anger.
To err and indeed, to let your emotions get the best of you, is only human, but when that happens more often than not, it risks tarnishing the legacy of a player who might otherwise be teeming with talent - Kyrgios, again, being a prime example. Although the Australian is immensely talented, a mention of his name brings only his many on-court tantrums to mind.
Anger, channeled correctly, can turn into the kind of aggression that improves serves, games, and focus; it is finding that delicate balance between rage and raw adrenaline that separates the good from the best.
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