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“For so long people have just taken what I do for granted. It is not easy to do year-in, year-out, to win Grand Slams and be No. 1.”

This quote comes from Pete Sampras, one of the greatest players in the tennis game. We have witnessed complete domination in these last couple of years on the men’s tour from Federer and Nadal; they’ve won every Grand Slam since 2004, bar a few (Gaudio, Safin, Djokovic, Del Potro, etc), yet just like Pete put it, we haven’t fully appreciated just how good Federer and Nadal have been – Federer for staying injury-free for so long and winning so many Majors while playing a beautiful style of tennis, while Nadal’s results on clay have been unbelievable; we’re not stupid as tennis observers, we are quick to adore Federer’s forehand or Nadal’s forehand, yet it is the Spaniard’s mindset, as the Swiss’s, that is truly the spectacular object that defines the two as the best – just like Sampras.

“The difference of great players is at a certain point in a match they raise their level of play and maintain it. Lesser players play great for a set, but then less. “

This is another quote from Sampras, yet we know this; we’ve seen countless times when Federer, Nadal or Sampras raised their games at the biggest moments in sport – but what is never talked about is how, or how they think towards getting there, how have they been raised to play decent for a set, hold out for a tie-breaker, and win it, and subsequently, win a match? Countless times Nadal has been out-hit by opponents such as Djokovic or Soderling or even Murray to an extent, yet at the most crucial stage, the big decider, he comes out on top, it is this sparkling mentality that truly defines a tennis player – not their forehand or backhand, and it’s a shame tennis players are judged by technical ability and not their mindset to the game.

Can you consistently stay in top-shape? Can you motivate yourself to play your best tennis despite your family falling to pieces? Can you stay in shape despite having mononucleosis? Can you close out a match despite your coach and friend passing away, while being affected? Nadal, Federer and Sampras all handled these issues, yet lesser, or to an extent, normal players, would have been set-back.

It’s the ability to ride through – to consistently face new situations, to consistently adapt to different environments, no matter how good or bad, it’s about having the determination to play even when you are physically or technically at your best that defines you as a player who has a champion mindset and is different to the rest.

Sampras had his nemesis in the form of Kraijcek as well as others, Federer has his obvious nemesis in Nadal, and the Spaniard doesn’t have a clear nemesis; Federer and Sampras promote a proactive style which usually only 1 or 2 players can beat, Nadal’s is reactive and thus while more effective, more players can beat it. Yet it’s the audacitiy, it’s the pure mental strength, that is required, to face a nemesis, to look them in the eye, and to understand that your style isn’t suited to them – yet to still believe you can win, to still believe you will win, which must create extreme pressure – but to handle it so well, and to consistently do so.

This is what makes a champion.

“It could get into my mind. I could start thinking, ‘I can’t play against this guy, his game doesn’t suit me’. I could start accepting the fact that I have been losing against him, but that would be a bad thing for me to do.”

This is a quote from Federer on Nadal – and look at the paragraph above, Federer does not accept a losing mentality against the Spaniard – he is fully confident and positive.

Sampras showed this against the talented Richard Kraijcek, it is hard to make assumptions about what Sampras was thinking when he was down 2-6 in the tiebreaker at such an important match, yet the idea of him fully believing he could win it, confident in his physical and technical ability to do so, that is baffling; it seems counter-intuitive, you find yourself 2-6 down, 1 point down from losing a crucial set; yet at this point is when you are most emotional, most fired-up. Federer was similarly down 2-6 to Roddick in another tie-break – had Federer lost that tie-break he would have been down two sets to love to a Roddick who’s serve was nearly unbreakable on that day – 1 point from loss, essentially; it is when we look back at this we see just how often tennis matches are judged not by serve, forehand or fitness, but what the players think, feel and how they execute.


(this is perhaps the most extreme example of the champion mindset; Nadal was playing poor yet he still dug deep, deep, and won the match)

It’s the ability to not see extreme wind as not a problem that will affect your baseline game negatively, rather to see it as a challenge; to conquer it, it’s about being able to consistently beat new opponents, time and time again. This is a champion mindset – it is the pure belief that you can win, it is easily perceived as arrogance and delusion, but on a more subtle analysis, it isn’t related to arrogance at all, rather more to flair and determination, why should believing you can conquer your opponent be seen as arrogance?

It’s about going to your weakest surface and comfortably defeating players who are more adept to the surface than you are, it’s the ability to make these amazing records and statistics (23 Grand Slam semi finals in a row, 81 matches won on clay, 8 consecutive finals in a Major, etc) that show just how dominant a player is. It is rare and often it takes time for a player to fully be a champion – Pete Sampras and Roger Federer are brilliant examples of this, while Nadal’s learning curve was much quicker, yet all three players have a champion mindset and all three have faced countless situations – Sampras vomitting in a Major (live in the match) and still winning; Nadal playing with severe blisters; Federer playing in a windy match against a player who is taller and hits a bigger serve. As difficult as they were, each player buckled down, exerted a huge amount of mental strength, pure determination, and won.

And it is this – the ability to spark something from nothing, when you’re not playing well or when the conditions are completely against you; when the crowd is rooting the opposing player, the ability to find something deep inside. You’re not witnessing just a tennis player – you’re witnessing a champion. Sport is the black board on which human excellence and creativity can be written, when tennis fans see this, we truly adore watching tennis for the beautiful sport it is.

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2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Nadal, of course, is no exception to this – the bagel he received in the Wimbledon 2006 final by Federer was down to Nadal being very, very pragmatic, yet Nadal has experience of playing the big events and can play his best “game” in a semi final, or a final, with the pressure added on, similar to how Sampras and Federer have done, which correlates to a mentality of a champion, which makes him very, very difficult to beat. […]

  2. By Destination Unknown « Tennis Analysis on 30 Jul 2012 at 1:21 am

    […] Wwe are so determined to understand every technical detail when previewing matches we forget the mind controls how well the player performs. […]

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