Posts Tagged ‘Tennis’

The Importance of Tennis Psychology and the Parents’ Role in American Tennis Development

John F Murray – May 10, 2013 – Special Report – With a country the size of the United States and the many resources available, you would think that a return to the glory days of the early 90s or the tennis boom in the late 70s and early 80s would be only natural, but the process has been sadly taking a lot longer than anticipated. The truth is that USA tennis has been outfoxed for years now by players and organizations in much smaller nations.

In 2008, the futility of American tennis coupled with the reduced talent on the women’s side, prompted the United States Tennis Association to reorganize its player development system, launching new programs including regional residential training centers, new national coaches to develop and train prospects, and an increased budget (upward of $100 million over 10 years). The plan was comprehensive and ambitious, and its goals were to generate new great players for the future.  While organizational changes were needed, the truth of the matter is that passionate parents still have a much greater influence on tennis player success than any political initiative.

Looking at the current WTA world ranked players in the top 60, Americans Serena Williams (1) and Venus Williams (21) are still up there, but this run will not last forever. After the Williams sisters we are left with only Sloane Stephens (17), Varvara Lepchenko (27), and Christina McHale (55). This is downright sad for a country of over 300 million and with the rich tennis history we have. By contrast, there are 7 Russian women in the top 60.  On the ATP Tour, the results are even worse. In the top 60, the only Americans are Sam Querrey (18), John Isner (21), and Mardy Fish (42). By contrast, Spain has 7 players in the top 60 and France has 6.

So if the organizations are not doing it as well as they could, what can tennis parents do? Maybe they need to be a bit more passionate. Some have even called it crazy! The sports psychology implications are immense.

The story goes that Richard Williams, upon learning of the opportunity that women’s tennis offered, just decided to make his next two kids into tennis pros. He hid his wife’s birth control pills when she did not want children, taught himself the game, and taught his kids on very rough courts in the hood before sending them to a tennis academy to finish the product.  His daughters succeeded beyond all possible expectations. And while they just continued to win, Richard just continued to show the eccentric behavior that led him to believe in his daughter’s chances in the first place.

Other stories are even more astounding. Tennis star Suzanne Lenglen was the product of a nutty father who withheld jam from her bread if she practiced badly. Lenglen won 31 Grand Slam titles. Jelena Dokic’s father and coach, Damir, admitted hitting Jelena (“for her sake”) and was eventually ejected from three major tournaments. Since Jelena stopped talking with her father, he has threatened to kidnap her and drop a nuclear bomb on Australia, where his daughter now lives. Maria Sharapova’s father, Yuri, is currently so hated for his coaching during matches and aggressive behavior that Anastasia Myskina refused to play in the Federation Cup if her countrywoman was named to the Russian team.

The stories go on and on. And while I would never advocate insane behavior in order to produce a champion, there is often a lot passion in that insanity, and that raw passion and desire needs to be fostered more in children at a young age. In other words, remove the abuse, but keep some of that raw passion and excitement for the game, and you will become a better and more influential parent in your kid’s lives!

Tennis, and all sports really, are sometimes not unlike combat. The late David Foster Wallace wrote that tennis “is to artillery and airstrikes what football is to infantry and attrition.”  Great players learn how to remain objective and reduce their matches and their opponents to targets that must be eliminated. It is that singular focus and the intensity that accompanies it that I believe helps make these players great.

Arthur Ashe once stated that if he didn’t play tennis, he’d probably have to see a psychiatrist. After all, you have to be somewhat over the top to submit to the nomadic lifestyle and brutal realities of professional tennis. This is the type of lifestyle that presents numerous challenges from a tennis psychology perspective. “If you want to win the French Open, which is like desert warfare, you better darn well have a coach like Jim Pierce who exposes you to some of the most intense training, but I always state that it cannot be abusive in a way that he was known to be abusive. No hitting, no screaming, no slapping. For every Wimbledon champion that is punched, there are probably 1000 players who did not make it because they were abused!

The intensity and uniqueness of passionate parents carries with it a sort of genius that I believe is indeed helpful in getting players to the top. Examples include Charles Lenglen’s decision to eschew the soft playing style of women in his time in favor of training Suzanne against men, and Gloria Connors’ insistence on teaching Jimmy a two-fisted backhand in an era of one-handers. In fact, my client for many years, Vince Spadea, who made it to the top 18, was trained by a father who decided that there were no two-handed backhands on the pro tour. He decided to create one in his son after watching Chris Evert play in the 1970s, and Vince’s backhand was one of the best on the tour for years.

In addition to smart and passionate parents, the role of the mental coach or sports psychologist is crucial. By helping the parents stay sane while they develop their kids’ talents, and by helping the players themselves develop their confidence, focus and energy control, the machine becomes a controlled passion rather than a passion ran amuck with abuse. Add in solid technical coaching and a great fitness program and you have the recipe for success.

If American tennis is ever going to return to the glory days of past, and it should with the immense resources we possess, there needs to be a return to passion on the part of the parents infused with the latest tennis psychology training, coaching, and fitness available. The United States Tennis Association can only do so much. Like many areas of human development, the lessons learned in the home are the most powerful and the most lasting. School cannot even compete with what is learned at home.

Ditch the abuse, retain the passion, and invest in sports psychology to the hilt, and in 10 years this country should have 10 players in the top 40 on both the men’s and women’s tours. I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of tennis psychology.


Sports Psychology Column – May 1, 2003 – By Dr. John F. Murray – Andre Agassi just became the first man to repeat as champion of the NASDAQ-100 in Key Biscayne with his 6-3, 6-3 thrashing of Carlos Moya.

He left the tournament 18-1 on the ATP circuit this year, leading all players. What is it that makes this special individual so mentally strong? What kind of audacity does he possess to keep on pushing for greater and greater heights at age 33? By reviewing Agassi’s on-court performance, and then listening to his post-match comments, let’s shed light on the mindse of a very rare master who constantly finds ways to play smarter tennis. Enjoy the clinic!

Andre Agassi just became the first man to repeat as champion of the NASDAQ-100 in Key Biscayne with his 6-3, 6-3 thrashing of Carlos Moya. He left the tournament 18-1 on the ATP circuit this year, leading all players. What is it that makes this special individual so mentally strong? What kind of audacity does he possess to keep on pushing for greater and greater heights at age 33? By reviewing Agassi’s on-court performance, and then listening to his post-match comments, let’s shed light on the mindset of a very rare master who constantly finds ways to play smarter tennis. Enjoy the clinic!

Agassi found a way to dominate Moya in most phases of the game. Let’s start with the accuracy of his serve. His 69% first serve percentage, 8 Aces, and 1 double fault all reflect pure excellence and flawless execution on a very windy day. His service accuracy was his biggest weapon rather than dominating pace. Moya actually served much faster at 119 mph. Agassi only averaged 104, but he was deadly accurate.

Coaches are right on in saying that consistency is a huge weapon in tennis! Consistency in making the correct decision on where to hit the serve. Consistency in executing the shot. Consistency in hitting more winners than unforced errors. Agassi had 28 winners to only 13 unforced errors, whereas Moya had 14 winners to 20 unforced errors.

Agassi was also more aggressive on his groundstrokes, slightly more accurate on his approach shots, and dominant once he got to the net, winning on 93% of his approaches.

The bottom line is that Agassi played better tennis. But that is just what you see. What was going on in his mind? What kind of attitude did he take to this match long before he hit any balls? This is the unseen advantage that is often overlooked.

Let’s go to the post-match press conference and identify some sport psychology principles present in Agassi’s mindset:

Turning Adversity into Advantage

The wind was a beast. Agassi didn’t see it that way. He said “today was certainly a great day for me, serving-wise. I think specifically because it was breezy. Any time you can get a good percentage of first serves in, especially on key points, in windy conditions, it’s a big advantage. I did that well today.” What an amazing attitude. Something we can all learn from. Rather than making excuses, how about realizing there is a silver lining in that cloud!

Staying Hopeful and Confident

The way we frame things is often more important than the supposed actual reality. Agassi stays very positive in his thinking. Asked about the upcoming clay season, he said “I feel great about how I feel mentally a very positive going on to the clay season, hopeful that everything is going to stay together.” Henry Ford once said “whether you think you can or think you are right.” Agassi thinks like Ford did, and how you should too.

Not Over-thinking in a Match

Despite all the great mental tips and suggestions, once a match begins it auto-pilot time. Its much better to just play tennis and let habits take over than to over-think. Agassi said “I try not to assess how I’m playing until after the fact. And then after the fact, I can look at it and be objective.”

Focusing without Fear

Agassi knows what it means to stay focused without letting fear intrude. In discussing the number of matches he had to play in a row in close proximity he said, “there’s nothing really about it that you worry about getting through so many matches, so you just focus on executing opportunities that you do get and try to create as many as possible.” So many players worry. Keep it simple and keep the focus on what you are doing now.

Remaining Extremely Confident

Agassi assumes someone else is going to have to play well to beat him! Listen to this comment “I’m thinking about preparing myself properly to be at my best for Paris; to make somebody play a great match to beat me. It’s as simple as that.” Wow. Enough said.

Working Hard

Throw out all the mental tips in the world if you dont work! When asked if he had found the fountain of youth and was just not telling anyone, Agassi smirked and said “No, no, it’s hard work.”

Agassi blew away Moya with a precise combination of physical and mental superiority. If you look at his accuracy and consistency in executing shots, then review his attitudes and insights, you soon realize that the mental game is much more than a few clever suggestions to play smart tennis. The thoughts, feelings, habits and sensations actually control the actions. When it all works together brilliantly, you get Agassi, an ever improving legend in our midst.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into sports psychology.


Sports Psychology Column – Nov 1, 2001 – Dr. John F. Murray – Talent, desire and mind-body skills all work together to enhance performance. This increases the probability that success will occur, but the opponent has to cooperate before winning actually takes place. Remember — higher performance never guarantees success, but only increases the probability.

In providing sport psychology services to athletes at many levels, I’ve found that one particular mindset is useful in unlocking true potential in a person. It is the attitude of the beginner’s mind, open and trusting, that seems to work well. No matter how accomplished an athlete may be or how much they know, an innocence and almost trust in our plan together is what sets the stage for learning and excellence. Let’s call this attitude belief.

Scientists usually scoff at the notion of belief in their research and knowledge creation. After all, we’ve sent men to the moon and discovered the cures for many diseases not by believing, but by analyzing and thinking in an extremely critical fashion. This healthy doubt is the hallmark of the scientific revolution and serves us well in creating knowledge, but doubt in an athlete’s mind only sidetracks progress and interferes with performance.

The problem with doubt for the athlete is that an awful lot of energy and left-brain thinking is required to analyze critically and consider the many possibilities of action. Doubt creates distractions that disrupt flow and focus and reduce confidence. To perform with grace and efficiency on the tennis court requires an almost single-minded and simple trust in the chosen training method.

In working with an athlete, whether as a coach or sport psychologist, it is essential to establish trust up front and spell out the benefits that occur by letting go of control and believing in the plan. This is not to say that every word out of a good coach or sport psychologists’ mouth is scientifically based. Far from it! A good part of any coaching and counseling is art, based upon intuition, smart risks, trends and hunches.

Still, it is often the athlete’s belief, as well as the precision of their knowledge, that leads them to progress. Much has been written about the placebo effect in medicine. A sugar pill will often cure pain as effectively as an established pain medication. The mechanism here is belief. This placebo effect is equally important in getting an athlete ready for peak performance.

Here are some guidelines in helping promote belief in an athlete. Whether you are an athlete, coach, sport psychologist or highly involved tennis parent, you will find these useful:

1. Whatever you are doing, make sure that your approach is based on sound principles. Although belief is important, belief alone will never suffice. Part of the challenge in establishing trust is showing how what you are doing is credible and state of the art.

2. Paint a total picture for the athlete from the outset. Show the person what it takes to achieve high performance and how goals will be accomplished. Only after showing the overall plan is it time to get specific and address details.

3. Simplify your message. Rather than trying to accomplish too many things at once, focus on one skill at a time until mastery occurs. Confusion rarely enhances belief or performance.

4. Never promise victory, but always promise higher performance. There is no way to absolutely control the outcome of an athletic event. False promises only reduce belief.

With solid knowledge and a total belief in the program and goals chosen, the athlete is more confident, uncluttered by doubts and free to express their own creative genius. Teach belief as much as you teach skills and you’ll unleash a force with few limitations.

Hope you enjoyed a useful and important passage written by Dr John F. Murray

A change would do Federer good if he wants to shed Nadal curse

CBS Sports – Lesley Visser – March 30, 2009 – KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Nick Bollettieri, who has coached 10 No. 1 players in the world — from Becker to Agassi to Seles to Sharapova –- didn’t mince words when reflecting on what Roger Federer has to do to regain the form that made him dominant for most of the decade.

“I think he has to change his game completely,” Bollettieri said. “He’s got to serve and volley, he’s got to take chances to come in and he’s got to do something about his confidence.”

Federer is often voted fan favorite and cited for his sportsmanship, but his game has lost its gentlemanly swagger. It’s well documented that he lost his No. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal, who has now won 13 of the 19 matches they’ve played, including epic battles at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

For the first time in five years, Federer isn’t seeded first here at the Sony Ericsson Open, and it has been two years since he won a Masters Series event, the tournaments listed just below the Grand Slams. Federer, always dangerous but lately less damaging, could face Andy Roddick in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal, where Roddick stunned the Swiss legend. Moving on, he would likely face Andy Murray or Nadal, both of whom have his number.

“Roger’s such a laid-back kid,” said Bollettieri, who, at 77, looks at someone 27 as still in his boyhood. “He has problems with Murray (who is 6-2 against Federer), but his major hurdle is Nadal. Roger has got to improve his backhand when Nadal hits that heavy topspin crosscourt. Roger should aim for the middle of the court.”

Nadal is hungry now, playing with breathtaking speed and power. The world No. 1, the French and Australian Open champion, the Wimbledon champion, the man who saved five match points just weeks ago against David Nalbandian  in the fourth round at Indian Wells, which he won, has nothing missing in his game.

“He’s got everything,” said legend Bud Collins. “He can play offense or defense, he can serve, he has strength, he can control the game from the baseline and he has the best inside-out forehand since Jim Courier.”

Nadal has already won six Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal and a Davis Cup championship. He also has Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, a position Federer has not filled since severing his relationship with Tony Roche two years ago.

“I think Roger needs a coach,” said Collins. “He told me once years ago, ‘I want to hear my own voice,’ but Nadal has crawled into his head, like a worm.”

Federer spoiled us with his gorgeous, unstoppable tennis, but he has now lost five straight matches to the Spaniard Nadal. Federer has been the overachieving perfectionist, effortless on the court. But now he needs a mental tune-up.

“Nadal is in his head,” said Collins, “the way Bjorn Borg couldn’t beat John McEnroe at the U.S. Open. This is an incredible rivalry, but Roger has lost his confidence.”

Is Federer’s run over? Will he ever win another Grand Slam? Or does he just need Dr. Phil?

“Well maybe not Dr. Phil,” said longtime sports psychologist Dr. John Murray who traveled with Vince Spadea to the Australian Open. “There is no doubt that mental coaching can have an enormous effect on confidence, and, for Roger, the clock is ticking. He should be talking regularly — 30- to 60-minute sessions, to someone who’s done a full assessment of him and his game, someone who’s actively getting him ready for matches, not just a sit down with a therapist.”

At 2-2 of the fifth and final set at Wimbledon, during the second rain delay, Nadal talked to his coach, Toni, and his trainer, Rafael Maymo, in the locker room. After two successive losses to Federer on the lawn at SW19, Nadal told his team he knew he was going to win this one. In January, Nadal brought Federer to exhausted, emotional tears after winning the Australian Open 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 3-6, 6-2 and accepting the trophy from Rod Laver. The Sony Ericsson is scheduled to be their next encounter.

“I know this is a big week for me,” said Federer after his second-round win over Kevin Kim. “Last season was very, very tough. I’ve been struggling against Rafa, and Murray, too. I have to get wins against them to turn it around.”

Nadal is 22 and will try to prevent Federer from capturing a record-tying 14th Grand Slam. But the mighty lefty, Nadal, and the gossamer righty, Federer, have given us magnificent memories.

“Tennis has not had a period like this, with two such gentlemen at the top, since Don Budge and Gottfried Von Cramm,” said Collins of the two rivals known for their courtesy in the 1930s. “They’re both so unselfish — we’re in a golden period.”

Games People Play

TENNIS WEEK MAGAZINE – Richard Pagliaro – October 22, 2008 – Gulping deep gasps of air between points, a drained Novak Djokovic seemed to suffer from an assortment of ailments: an upset stomach, hip pain, breathing issues, a sore ankle and the suffocating play from Tommy Robredo who dragged the third-seeded Serbian into a fifth-set duel at last month’s US Open.

The man with the Broadway build spent the 2007 Flushing Meadows fortnight taking the USTA’s “Showtime” tag line to heart in producing the most crowd-pleasing performances of the tournament while relishing his roles as a mid-point improviser and post-match impersonator. But as he prepared to play the fifth set, Djokovic looked like a man in dire need of a stunt double.

Instead, he took a bathroom break, received treatment from the trainer then dug in to subdue the 15th-seeded Spaniard, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3, and advance to his seventh major quarterfinal in a performance of a player persevering through the pain to prevail in a gritty win.

Or was it?

Scratching beneath the surface of the score line immediately after the match, Robredo raised an interesting question: was Djokovic’s comeback inspired by competitive will or a con man’s skill? Did the master of showmanship resort to gamesmanship to pull out the match?

“Novak was doing the show that he couldn’t run,” Robredo said. “It’s not that I don’t believe him, but I have pain as well. I was running like hell and my feet were burning, but I say nothing. I think if you’re not fit enough, then don’t play. But after every time he was asking for a trainer, he was running like hell and he was making the shot, but he does what he does a lot of times. Did I trust him? No. I think he took his time because he was a little bit more tired and that’s part of his game. It helped him a lot.”
Djokovic, who survived a grueling four-hour battle with Marin Cilic, 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-4, 7-6(7), in a demanding third-round night match that took a toll on his body, countered he was merely doing what was necessary to survive.

“I know that what I’m doing is right, that I have all the rights to take the medical time out, that I’m doing it just for the purpose to make my physical condition better,” Djokovic said. “I never made medical timeout because I wanted to distract the opponent or make the result look worse. I just took the medicals to help me out.”

It’s not the first time Djokovic has resorted to injury timeouts in major matches. At the 2005 Open, Djokovic beat Gael Monfils, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(5), 0-6, 7-5 in a match that spanned four hours and two minutes and featured four stoppages of play from Djokovic, who requested the trainer to treat his respiratory and cramping issues. At 4-4 in the fifth set of that match, the seemingly spent Serbian climbed off the court and took an injury timeout that spanned nearly 13 minutes then won three of the final four games.

Confronted with questions of whether he resorted to gamesmanship to pull out that victory, Djokovic said he could not have completed the match without receiving treatment.

“I cannot describe how I was feeling; you just have to be on court feeling it,” Djokovic said. “I’m not used to hard five-set matches. I know for people watching it (taking the breaks) is really irritating, but this is the only way I could win and continue. I am not thinking this would be nice for the people watching, I am thinking and trying to win.”

Monfils did not accuse Djokovic of gamesmanship, but said the frequent stops stalled his momentum.
“The first time, it was OK,” Monfils said. “In the fifth set, I was so close to breaking him; it was very difficult at 40-all then he stopped. If he can beat me without stopping like this it would be very fair, but he won this match.”

In his latest use of the injury timeout, Djokovic won the battle with Robredo and conquered Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals, but lost the public relations war in process. Roddick, jokingly questioned Djokovic’s “16 injuriesâ€? in an on-court interview prior to their quarterfinal match, but the comment clearly touched a nerve.

Djokovic was jeered by some members of the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium after beating Roddick then defiantly dug himself a deeper hole in the process by disputing Roddick’s remarks and suggesting the American was resorting to verbal gamesmanship in an effort to incite the crowd against him.
“That’s not nice, anyhow, to say in front of this crowd that I have 16 injuries and I am faking it,” Djokovic said. “I have nothing against anybody. Andy was saying that I have 16 injuries in the last match, so obviously I don’t, right? Like it or not, it’s like that. They (the crowd) are already against me because they think I am faking everything, so sorry.”

The apology was as effective as attempting to patch a blown tire with a Band-Aid: in the semifinals the New York crowd overwhelmingly supported Roger Federer against Djokovic, who played timid tennis at times as if apprehensive about rousing the crowd.

John McEnroe, who has first-hand experience in inciting crowds, said Djokovic may still be feeling the impact of his US Open experience.

“He doesn’t want to dig in on these points against the best guys. He can get away with it against most guys any way but when it really got to the nitty gritty against Federer   — he had a chance at a set-all 5-all against Federer — but it seemed like he was still bothered by what happened a few days earlier (against Roddick),” McEnroe said. “Mentally, what happened in that match is probably going to affect him for a little bit. Well see how he can shrug it off because he sort of dug himself this huge hole. I knew exactly what he was doing — I’ve been there myself — talk about putting your foot in your mouth and just digging it in deeper and deeper and watching him do that it was part of why I think he’s not so happy go lucky anymore. He’s not having a lot of fun out there at the moment.”
Gamesmanship is not always fun and games even for those who appear to benefit from it.

The most common forms of gamesmanship occur when players manipulate injury timeouts and bathroom breaks for rest, recovery or merely to stall an opponent’s momentum — and several coaches and players believe such acts are premeditated by the players who subvert the rules as an escape clause from on-court predicaments.

“The habits and behaviors that we ultimately see on the battle ground of match play is, in my view, usually well practiced and honed long before the match even begins,” sports psychologist and coach Dr. John F. Murray said. “It makes up the temperament and personality of a particular player. It is not always pretty when a player seems to engage in gamesmanship, but the player quite easily can justify this by thinking of times when that player was wronged through gamesmanship. If the player feels that it adds an advantage and is still within the strict bounds of the rules or cannot be detected than it opens the door to these shenanigans. I believe it usually is premeditated but it can also fall into that grey area where the behavior is rare for a player, but is triggered by huge amounts of stress or distress.”

Djokovic, whose ball-bouncing antics before serving are often cited as another source of gamesmanship, may be the highest-profile player accused of gamesmanship, but he’s hardly alone. Some players engage in mind games during big games.

Former World No. 1 Martina Hingis’ mind was one of her biggest weapons, but her bladder became a useful tennis tool as the five-time Grand Slam champ was notorious for taking well-timed bathroom breaks to disrupt the rhythm and momentum of an opponent prior to an important game.
Mary Pierce took a controversial — and legal — 12-minute injury timeout to receive treatment for her lower back and strained right thigh in the 2005 US Open semifinal against Elena Dementieva.
Commencing the time out by applying eye drops, Pierce placed a towel on the court and stretched out on her stomach. As the trainer worked on her lower back, Piece looked like she was engaged in a Pilates class stretching and turning to loosen her back.

While play resumed, a rejuvenated Pierce recovered. Dementieva did not. Playing with purpose and running faster than she had prior to the injury time-out, Pierce reeled off 12 of the final 15 games to score a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over the sixth-seeded Dementieva and surge into the U.S. Open final for the first time in her career.

Dementieva did not accuse Pierce of gamesmanship in her post-match press conference, but said the extended break stretched beyond the boundaries of sportsmanship in declaring the delay was not fair.
“I think you can change the game around by winning an unbelievable point or by changing the rhythm,” Dementieva said. “I mean, that’s the fair point. But by taking like a 12-minutes time out, I don’t think it was fair play. She could do it, I mean by the rules. And she did it. If that’s the only way she can beat me, I mean it’s up to her.”

In a contentious clash at Charleston in 2004, Patty Schnyder retaliated for what she believed was Conchita Martinez’s deliberate effort to frustrate her in controlling the pace of play when she snatched the Spaniard’s preferred ball and smacked it into the stands.

“With all other players you can have really good sportsmanship, and with her it’s nasty play, and I don’t think it should be on the court,” said Schnyder, who finished the match with a Swiss diss in offering her hand to Martinez then withdrawing it to turn the post-match hand shake into a hand fake.
In the 2007 L.A. final, Radek Stepanek took timeout for treatment on his back after the first set. By the end of the match, Stepanek’s back was strong enough to not only win the match but withstand the rigors of his trademark worm dance he performed in celebration.

About a month later, Fabrice Santoro faced Blake in the US Open and appeared to be cramping. The Frenchman tugged at the bottom of his shorts at one point to show his quads tightening and began deliberately taking more time between points in a ploy McEnroe pointed out was an effort to incur a stall warning from the chair umpire against himself.

“It’s brilliant in a way — he was actually baiting the chair umpire to hit him for stalling because he knows that would get some of the crowd sympathy on his side,” McEnroe said.

There are no time-outs in tennis, but players have long used the injury timeout the way some soccer players flop to the field in the apparent agony as if subject to a spinal tap without anesthetic — as a means to slow an opponent’s momentum or to stop the action and provide a chance for rest and recovery.

The issue raised by Robredo raises a larger question: has gamesmanship become a legitimate part of the game?

Ideally, tennis subscribes to core values of sportsmanship. But when you’re fighting for a Grand Slam championship, a $1 million pay day and a rise in the rankings does the ends justify the means?
“Let’s be honest: it’s a dog-eat-dog world at this level,” said Nick Bollettieri, who has coached 10 World No. 1 players. “When you’re playing for major titles, hundreds of thousands of dollars and ranking points there’s a lot on the line. This isn’t Sunday afternoon tennis at the country club; this is the pro game and some guys are going to do whatever it takes to win and sometimes that means testing you physically, psychologically, emotionally and mentally. As a player, especially younger players, you’ve got to be tough enough to stand up to it. And as a coach, you’ve got to prepare your player for these things because the veterans will try to chew them up anyway they can to get an edge.”

At the peak of his powers, John McEnroe was to gamesmanship was Marlon Brando was to method acting: an emotive, explosive tour de force of talent, will and skill. While many players play the ball, McEnroe operated on multiple levels: playing the ball, the opponent, the officials, and the crowd.
In a moment Bill Scanlon says “still blows my mind,” he recalls McEnroe summoning him to the net during a 1981 quarterfinal in San Francisco and very calmly explaining why Scanlon had no business beating him. It was, according to Scanlon, trash talk as a persuasive tutorial.

“Think about it: this is a one-on-one sport so when you win it’s because you ended up better than the other guy. If you have a certain level you can try to bring your level above his or bring his level down to yours,” Scanlon said. “It’s like the old joke when two kids are being chased by a bear through the woods and one kid says: ‘How are we going to outrun the bear?’ and the other kid replies: ‘I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.’ Part of what John could do was to make me worse and trying to get inside my head and do whatever worked to accomplish that goal was a way to do it. And I always thought it was fair game, so you won’t ever find me complaining about his tactics.”

Those tactics can sometimes carry over into multiple matches, prompting some players to fight gamesmanship with gamesmanship.

“It reminds me of playing Becker and he used to cough incessantly and virtually every time when he had a break point or big point or just annoying time and it seemed to be deliberate and I remember deciding before a match every time he would cough I would cough back,” McEnroe recalled. “And I started to do that playing Boris before a big crowd of about 12,000 in Paris and he coughed and I coughed and he coughed and I coughed and it became comical. I was trying to point out how ridiculous the entire thing was. Boris said to me ‘Hey John give me a break, I’ve got a cold.’ I said ‘You’ve had a cold for years now!’ And the guy still does it so it’s a tick on some level. The irony is everyone booed me when I did that to Becker and he was the guy doing it in the first place yet I get booed. I suppose people thought I was being the bad guy whereas they didn’t understand he had been doing this for years.” 

While McEnroe does not advocate faking injury, he does argue that some forms of gamesmanship are an inherent part of sports: baseball players trying to steal signs from the catcher, offensive lineman taping their hands in an effort to camouflage holding and players at the bottom of a scramble for a fumble actually punching and biting each other in an effort to get the ball, hockey players hooking opponents with the tip of their sticks while a referee’s back is turned or basketball players yanking at the jersey of an opponent to pull him out of position and grab a rebound.

One of the greatest upsets in heavyweight history came when Muhammad Ali pulled the rope-a-dope, reclining on the ropes and absorbing George Foreman’s blows on his arms, bluffing the heavy hitter into believing he was absorbing a beating until Ali spun off the ropes and knocked out Foreman.

Do you view those acts as gamesmanship or simply athletes trying to gain an edge? Is there a fine line between being a gamer and resorting to gamesmanship?

Tennis is a turf war and players are territorial. US Open champions Serena Williams and Andy Roddick are both willing to administer body blows to opponents who dare infringe on their turf. Roddick, who has been known to hit serves and overheads directly at opponents, seemed to try to hit Santoro with a body serve during the US Open.

“I don’t know if it’s intimidation,” said Roddick during last December’s Davis Cup final. “If there’s 12,000 fans behind you and you feel like you can use them to help win a tennis match, you’d be stupid not to, right? With the exception of cheating, I’ll do what I can to win a tennis match.” 

Williams tried to drill Dinara Safina in the head with a shot during the Open semifinals that buzzed her blond braid then later succeeded in driving the ball right into her bulls-eye: Safina’s chest. 

In a single shot, Williams smacked a clear message to Safina that nearly struck her right between the eyes: crowd the net and I may be tempted to tattoo the word “Wilson” on your forehead. It was a purpose pitch: the tennis equivalent of a pitcher brushing back a batter leaning too close to the plate, a linebacker pounding a stretched-out wide receiver running a route over the middle or a center delivering a hard foul to a guard who dares to drive the lane.

But both Roddick and Williams’ efforts to brand opponents with the ball are legal, aggressive plays and not acts of gamesmanship.

“Serena’s play against Safina is not something I consider to be gamesmanship — in fact the Williams sisters play more fairly than any two competitors I know,” tennis television analyst Mary Carillo said. “They don’t stall, they don’t whine over calls, they don’t get illegally coached, they don’t cheat when using the challenge system by looking to their box. Hitting at an opponent is an intimidating play, but also a legitimate one. I find no fault with that. Nor do I find fault with standing tight to the service box when returning — it is an act of intimidation, and a perfectly legal one as well.”

McEnroe points to Robin Soderling angering Rafael Nadal during their 2007 Wimbledon third round by complaining about the Mallorcan’s methodical pace of play and mocking his pre-serve ritual of tugging at the seat of his shorts as an example of real, raw friction between players ratcheting up the intensity and dramatic tension tennis can offer.

“Obviously, I maybe had a shorter fuse, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with Soderling and Nadal getting into it at Wimbledon,” McEnroe says. “In a no-contact sport like tennis where you’re not hitting each other like setting a pick in basketball or a check in hockey then you need some sort of release on some level. So remember last year at Wimbledon when they had all the rain and players started melting down mentally? From a fan’s point of view, I enjoyed what happened when all that rain happened and players were getting annoyed: basically it got to them and it would have got to me too. It made for some memorable events and I think that’s interesting for tennis.”

Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin, widely respected as one of the best sportsmen of his generation, suggests a rule change may be the only way to deter rampant gamesmanship.

“Rafael Nadal frequently takes longer than the allotted time between points. That is against the ‘rule’ (that is rarely enforced), but a VERY far cry from gamesmanship,” Martin said. “Rafael is obviously idiosyncratic and is the best at not playing a point until he is ready to play. However, the trainer visit rules and such can be abused ad nauseum. As much as I like to advocate professional and personal responsibility there might be no other recourse than to create stiffer rules and punishments for bending or breaking of those rules. Despite the blurring of the etiquette, decency, honor lines over these many decades of open tennis, I will always contend that each player has the responsibility to call ‘touches’ and ‘not-ups’ on themselves. Frankly, these are not calls that umpires can make easily rather they are instances when most often the player knows what the correct call is.”

The advent of the Hawk-Eye replay system has greatly reduced on-court arguments over line calls. Has tennis has been transformed from grand theater featuring a compelling cast of characters — Connors, McEnroe, Nastase, Becker — into bland, big business with commerce supplanting creativity in players and a tennis Renaissance replaced with a paint-by-numbers product ruled by agents and administrators, who admonish players for straying slightly outside the lines? Does gamesmaship add an additional element to the game and should the players be left to police it themselves?
Carillo, who grew up with McEnroe partnered him to win the 1977 French Open mixed doubles championship and debated the topic of gamesmanship with him in the CBS broadcast booth during the Open, emphatically rejects the notion that gamesmanship adds entertainment value and drama to tennis and argues all the fake injuries turns tennis into theater of the absurd.

Carillo asserts that stall tactics can not only disrupt a match for players and fans such actions can also undermine the core values the game aspires to embrace.

“Gamesmanship in the form of stalling is rampant, whether for phony bathroom breaks, phony injury time-outs, excessive time between points,” Carillo said. “There is not one bit of good in any of that, and the rally cry years ago — that there was too little real action in tennis, too much time in between points to sustain the viewer — all that has just gotten worse with the bending, twisting and breaking of rules meant to keep a match moving along. If playing tennis is supposed to teach independence of thought, problem solving, confidence, self awareness and self reliance, what goes on in the pro game is also teaching — and, from many voices in the game, endorsing — deception, obfuscation, blame shifting and both winning and losing without honor.”

In an effort to flush the bathroom break as a gamesmanship tool, the WTA Tour will permit players whose opponents take breaks to consult with their coach during those timeouts.

“There’s obviously a fine line to balance between medical timeouts and toilet breaks and fair competition and avoiding gamesmanship,” WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott said. “What we’ve actually found and we’re quite hopeful about is with on-court coaching for any player that does take a medical break, the other player is going to be allowed access to their coach during that period of time. What we’ve found is that’s sort of a disincentive and keeping players a little more honest about their toilet breaks.”

But with Grand Slam titles at stake and massive pay days on the line it seems inevitable that the games some players play will not be confined to action between the lines.

“There will always be people who feel that rules weren’t made to be followed; they were made to be broken,” Carillo said. “It’s up to us as caretakers of the game to come out on the right side of this issue. I hope people do that.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.


Dr. John F. Murray has worked with over 100 pro tennis players on the ATP and WTA Tours, two division I college teams, for a full year each, and hundreds of junior and adult competitive tennis players. He has presented at major conferences, written for Tennis magazine and Tennis Week, and coached tennis worldwide in the 1980s. He is also the author of the best-selling tennis psychology book, “Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game,” cover endorsed by Wimbledon Champion and world #1 at the time, Lindsay Davenport. Dr. Murray still plays competitively for fun.

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Tennis Week -Oct 26, 2005 – Last month, Vince Spadea boldly guaranteed he will crack the top 10 and reach his highest career ranking in the coming year. Today, the 66th-ranked Spadea commenced his climb back up the rankings with one of his biggest wins of the season. Spadea defeated fourth-seeded Ivan Ljubicic, 7-6, 7-5, to advance to the second round of the Grand Prix de Tennis de Lyon.

Drained by his grueling duel with second-ranked Rafael Nadal in Sunday’s Madrid final in which the top-seeded Spaniard rallied from a two-set deficit to earn a 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) triumph that spanned three hours, 51 minutes, Ljubicic was understandably weary playing his 16th match in the last 22 days.

The 11th-ranked Croatian, who captured consecutive championships in Metz and Vienna prior to reaching the Madrid final, had won 16 of his last 17 matches (including two Davis Cup singles victories in Croatia’s semifinal conquest of Russia) but encountered a stubborn Spadea who stood up to Ljubicic’s power-based baseline game and put returns back in play.

“I haven’t had enough time to recover from my week in Madrid. I lacked energy,” Ljubicic said. “I gave everything I had but it was not enough. I was not very optimistic after the draw here. I knew that Spadea was one of the few players on the circuit capable of returning my serves well. He confirmed it today.”

Since falling to Greg Rusedski in the Newport final in July, Spadea stumbled to 3-9 record and exited in the opening round in six of his last nine tournaments. But the strong-willed Spadea took the court carrying the confidence of a man who had won two of his three career meetings with Ljubicic, including a 6-4, 7-6 victory in the 2004 Lyon round of 16 en route to the tournament semifinals. Ljubicic’s lethal one-handed backhand is his best ground stroke, but Spadea used his two-handed backhand to repeatedly repel Ljubicic in the cross court backhand exchanges.

The 31-year-old Spadea will face French wild card Michael Llodra for a place in the quarterfinals. Llodra was a 7-6, 6-3 victor over Xavier Malisse. Spadea has won two of three matches with Llodra, but the left-handed Llodra won their last meeting in the 2004 Adelaide quarterfinals.

Spadea, top-seeded Andy Roddick and eighth-seeded Robby Ginepri are the lone Americans left in the Lyon draw.

In other opening-round results: France’s Fabrice Santoro defeated American Taylor Dent, 6-3, 7-5.

Spadea, who recently completed a book with Tennis Week contributing writer Dan Markowitz that is a behind-the-scenes look at life on the ATP Tour, told Tennis Week last month he will reach his highest career ranking in 2006.

“Comebacks are never easy, but they are a part of sports, and I’m quite ready and excited about this new challenge,” said Spadea, who has resumed working with sport psychologist Dr. John Murray in an effort to aid his comeback. “I will return to my highest ranking ever. I guarantee it!”

Related Story: Spadea Issues Top 10 Guarantee

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.


Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game – Oct 4, 2005 – John F. Murray – ISBN 0787943800 – Reviewed by David Williams – Have you ever had a form slump on the tennis court? Did you wonder why you had seemingly forgotten how to hit the ball properly – apparently lost all that hard earned skill overnight?

Well, John Murray’s Smart Tennis may provide the answer. It’s likely that your sudden loss of form has more to do with your mind than your body. His book assists in determining your mental strengths and weaknesses and provides practical remedies for ailments like a loss of confidence, poor concentration, anger, nervousness and a general fear of losing. He also provides ways of harnessing appropriate amounts of energy, and improving performance by having well developed breathing techniques.

All sounding a bit hard? A bit too serious? Well, it’s not really. Smart Tennis presents simple descriptions of on-court and off-court problems, and practical tips that are equally relevant for the weekend player as the professional.

In saying that, the book is not a quick and breezy read. Keen tennis players are likely to find themselves constantly drifting off, thinking about the specifics of their tennis game and how the book applies to them. But that’s the idea isn’t it?

If you have spent countless hours trying to hone that backhand volley or a less than consistent second serve, perhaps it’s worthwhile considering that tennis is a game that is thought to be 75% mental. And if you think that your game could be improved by devoting a little more time to the mental aspects, then Smart Tennis is the book for you!

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

Rating: Highest – 4 Stars


Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News – Sep 29, 2005 – Michelle Kaufman – OK, so he’s not Joe Namath, and his bold guarantee is not making national headlines, but Vince Spadea’s public vow to rise from No. 56 to the top 10 is making some ripples in the insular world of tennis.

Spadea, the 31-year-old Boca Raton resident, on Sept. 19 signed a contract with his sports psychologist, John Murray, that ”guarantees” he will reach the top 10 — barring injuries — for the first time in his career. He sent out a press release, complete with photos of his contract.

”I’m sticking my head out there,” Spadea said by phone. “I like to say what I think, and I really believe this is within reason. I know there are skeptics out there who think I’m out of my mind, who think I’m being obnoxious and arrogant, and just using this as a publicity stunt. But I’ve always liked being the underdog and proving people wrong. That’s how I’ve made it this far even though I’m 5-10 ½ with no huge weapons.”

This is, after all, the guy who made one of the greatest comebacks in recent tennis history, soaring to No. 18 from No. 229 early last year and winning the first title of his career at Scottsdale.

”I’m in the last quarter of my career, and I want to go out with a bang,” Spadea said. “I want to make my last effort my greatest effort. I’ve beaten virtually every top 10 player in recent years, and shown small signs of greatness, but I need to commit every cell in my body to this and, hopefully, find another gear that I’ve never found before.”

Spadea said he doesn’t care how long he stays in the top 10. The point, he said, is to get there.

Spadea is 19-21 this year and has been hampered by injuries. He said he will train harder than ever now, and take tennis more seriously.

”This will help inspire me,” Spadea said. “I know it’s in me. I see other guys who have risen to the top 10 who haven’t won majors — [ Nikolay] Davydenko, [ Guillermo] Canas, [ Richard] Gasquet. I know on paper it’s improbable, but it’s not impossible. I’m jumping on this fast and furious. My career window is nearly closed, and I don’t want to end it knowing I didn’t give it everything.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.


Tennis Celebs – Sept 23, 2005 – Pro Tennis Player Vince Spadea Guarantees Top 10 Ranking with Help from Sport Psychologist – Vince Spadea promises that the best is still to come. This is a promise from a player best known for his determination as a tenacious scrambler on the court. To prove his new commitment, Vince recently began working again with his sport performance psychologist. He now guarantees that mental coaching will help him achieve his highest career ranking ever, top 10 in the world.

Spadea, rarely a stranger to adversity, recovered from the longest losing streak ever (21 straight) before winning his first ATP Tour title in Scottsdale last year. He beat James Blake and Andy Roddick en route to victory. In his comeback, Spadea rose from 229 to a career-best 18 in the world.

Injuries and adversity returned this year as Spadea dropped to 49 this week even after reaching the finals in Newport, RI a couple months ago.

“Rather than get discouraged or depressed, it’s a gift that I’m as high as 50 compared to where I was when I began the previous comeback,” Spadea declared.

“My rise will again be accomplished with help from my sport performance psychologist, John F. Murray, who formerly helped me back from my longest losing streak.”

Spadea got the idea of daring to make a public guarantee after thinking about great accomplishments and history. “Joe Namath guaranteed a Super Bowl victory when no-one believed in him; the 1980 USA Hockey Team truly believed; nobody thought David would slay Goliath. Even my performance psychologist stuck his neck on the line and lost 64 pounds after he made a public guarantee.”

Spadea claims that his public guarantee will help strengthen his resolve and commitment. “Comebacks are never easy, but they are a part of sports, and I’m quite ready and excited about this new challenge. I will achieve Top 10 in the world. I guarantee it!”

Spadea was known as the “giant-killer” a few years back after compiling the best record in the world against top-10 ranked players. He has beaten many legends of the game including Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. His backhand is regarded as one of the best in the game.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.