A great tennis player knows better than to burn through his matches too quickly

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Modern tennis players are at the front line of sporting evolution. They are pushing at the boundaries of physical virtuosity and mental aptitude. In terms of range and completeness, they’re the most highly evolved sportsmen in the world. It was once assumed that when sportsmen mastered their emotions, they would become blandly monochrome, identikit models devised by coaches and support staff. Tennis proves otherwise. Today’s best players are very different. Roger Federer touches benign serenity, Rafael Nadal is powered by a hounded intensity, Andy Murray mixes strength and deftness and Novak Djokovic’s silken technique coexists with an assassin’s instinct for the kill.

As with the arts, the ultimate sporting achievement is not mastering a textbook; it is mastering yourself. Throughout my cricket career, I bounced frustratingly against flaws at opposing ends of the psychological spectrum. Sometimes, I was too intense, too anxious about technique and averages. On other days, I was too relaxed and my competitiveness was allowed to drift too far below the surface. I erred in both directions. With experience, I got better at tuning my mind to the right bandwidth – but the periods when I was perfectly tuned in, the signal clear and undistorted, were all too brief.

Mental strength, properly understood, is getting yourself into the optimal psychological state – not too tense, not too relaxed; not too anxious, not too complacent; seeing both the wood and the trees.

It is not an easy destination to get to. And then you have to stay there – for hours at a stretch. Today’s tennis players do exactly that. They have dispensed with many of the irrelevant symptoms that sportsmen once paraded to show they were “trying hard”. (Jimmy Connors once snapped at a supporter, “I’m trying, for Christ’s sake!”) Today’s players do not tell, they show. The blank slate of total concentration is generally unbroken: the frustrations of the recent past are forgotten, potential glories ahead are ignored. The next point, the next shot, the next step: that is all they attend to.

Yet within that wider equilibrium, sportsmen must allow themselves moments of inspired self-expression, paragraphs of purple prose when the heart leads the head. The highest form of self-control does not negate wilder spirits but works with them.

This is accompanied by enormous risks. Riders in the Tour de France use the phrase “burning matches”. Every “attack”, in which a cyclist moves to the front and tries to forge a lead, constitutes the burning of a match. You have only so many matches to burn: use them carefully and make them count.

The metaphor of burning matches applies to all sports. The danger is that once you are in full flow, into fifth gear, pushing at the limits of your physical and psychological range, you then cannot resume a state of emotional equipoise. The crucial question is: can you move back down the gears or do you get stuck in fifth? Can you stop yourself burning matches?

Shane Warne used to mock opponents who wanted to impose themselves on the match too obviously. “Gee, he’s up for it today!” he would laugh from slip. By “up for it”, Warne meant the batsman was overexcitable and over-revving. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” Warne was saying, “because it won’t last long.” A short burn, quickly extinguished, is no use to anyone.

The highest form of psychological aptitude is the ability to move between calculated self-control and pure competitive revelry. Djokovic does this better than anyone. He can defuse a street fight using skill and subtlety. But if forced into a corner, if he has nowhere left to turn, he is the ultimate warrior. Best of all, he can revert to cool tactical exchanges after phases of wild ferocity.

At the Australian Open earlier this year, Djokovic was pushed to the limit by Stanislas Wawrinka. Each man fearlessly went for his shots and, if anything, Wawrinka had the edge in terms of pure ball-striking. The remarkable aspect was not Djokovic’s response when roused into fierce combat. It was the ease with which he resumed normality, having weathered the storm.

Boxers, as with tennis players, cannot spend too long in a phase of outright warfare. Few, however, are able to rein in primal instincts once they’ve come to the surface. An extraordinary instance of controlled rage came at the end of the third round of the celebrated “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. Ali had decided not to throw too many punches, to absorb punishment and withstand pain. But at the end of the third, he was stung into attack. Once launched, he developed a taste for battle, dancing around Foreman – jabbing, taunting. By the end of the round, Ali looked beyond self-control and had to be forced back to his corner by the referee.

And yet Ali was able to return to the script of denial and self-control. He went back down the gears, lying on the ropes, soaking up Foreman’s blows. By the eighth round, with his opponent exhausted, he saw his opportunity. A final gear change ended with Foreman lying on the canvas and Ali was world heavyweight champion again.

The word “tactics” does not cover any of this. Tactics implies surveying your hand and consciously selecting the appropriate playing card. Instead, a great sportsman can exploit entirely different domains of his personality – sometimes controlled, sometimes primal and yet somehow slightly controlled, even when he’s apparently out of control.

When I watch a great tennis player, as I have been at Wimbledon in recent days, I see a sportsman evolving simultaneously in two opposite directions: towards controlling those strands of personality that can be totally harnessed, while liberating the dimensions that cannot. It strikes me as a very sophisticated kind of living.

Andy Murray, 2013 Wimbledon champion, stands in front of a statue of Fred Perry. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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MPs Seema Malhotra and Stephen Kinnock lay out a 6-point plan for Brexit:

Time for Theresa May to lay out her priorities and explain exactly what “Brexit means Brexit” really means.

Angela Merkel has called on Theresa May to “take her time” and “take a moment to identify Britain’s interests” before invoking Article 50. We know that is code for the “clock is ticking” and also that we hardly have any idea what the Prime Minister means by “Brexit means Brexit.”

We have no time to lose to seek to safeguard what is best in from our membership of the European Union. We also need to face some uncomfortable truths.

Yes, as remain campaigners we were incredibly disappointed by the result. However we also recognise the need to move forward with the strongest possible team to negotiate the best deal for Britain and maintain positive relationships with our nearest neighbours and allies. 
 
The first step will be to define what is meant by 'the best possible deal'. This needs to be a settlement that balances the economic imperative of access to the single market and access to skills with the political imperative to respond to the level of public opinion to reduce immigration from the EU. A significant proportion of people who voted Leave on 23 June did so due to concerns about immigration. We must now acknowledge the need to review and reform. 

We know that the single market is founded upon the so-called "four freedoms", namely the free movement of goods, capital, services and people & labour. As things stand, membership of the single market is on an all-or-nothing basis. 

We believe a focus for negotiations should be reforms to how the how the single market works. This should address how the movement of people and labour across the EU can exist alongside options for greater controls on immigration for EU states. 

We believe that there is an appetite for such reforms amongst a number of EU governments, and that it is essential for keeping public confidence in how well the EU is working.

So what should Britain’s priorities be? There are six vital principles that the three Cabinet Brexit Ministers should support now:

1. The UK should remain in the single market, to the greatest possible extent.

This is essential for our future prosperity as a country. A large proportion of the £17 billion of foreign direct investment that comes into the UK every year is linked to our tariff-free access to a market of 500 million consumers. 

Rather than seeking to strike a "package deal" across all four freedoms, we should instead sequence our approach, starting with an EU-wide review of the freedom of movement of people and labour. This review should explore whether the current system provides the right balance between consistency and flexibility for member states. Indeed, for the UK this should also address the issue of better registration of EU nationals in line with other nations and enforcement of existing rules. 

If we can secure a new EU-wide system for the movement of people and labour, we should then seek to retain full access to the free movement of goods, capital and services. This is not just in our interests, but in the interests of the EU. For other nation states to play hardball with Britain after we have grappled first with the complexity of the immigration debate would be to ignore rather than act early to address an issue that could eventually lead to the end of the EU as we know it.

2. In order to retain access to the single market we believe that it will be necessary to make a contribution to the EU budget.

Norway, not an EU member but with a high degree of access to the single market, makes approximately the same per capita contribution to the EU budget as the UK currently does. We must be realistic in our approach to this issue, and we insist that those who campaigned for Leave must now level with the British people. They must accept that if the British government wishes to retain access to the single market then it must make a contribution to the EU budget.

3. The UK should establish an immigration policy which is seen as fair, demonstrates that we remain a country that is open for business, and at the same time preventing unscrupulous firms from undercutting British workers by importing cheap foreign labour.  

We also need urgent confirmation that EU nationals who were settled here before the referendum as a minimum are guaranteed the right to remain, and that the same reassurance is urgently sought for Britons living in mainland Europe. The status of foreign students from the EU at our universities must be also be clarified and a strong message sent that they are welcomed and valued. 

4. The UK should protect its financial services industry, including passporting rights, vital to our national prosperity, while ensuring that the high standards of transparency and accountability agreed at an EU level are adhered to, alongside tough new rules against tax evasion and avoidance. In addition, our relationship with the European Investment Bank should continue. Industry should have the confidence that it is business as usual.

5. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s employment legislation. People were promised that workers’ rights would be protected in a post-Brexit Britain. We need to make sure that we do not have weaker employment legislation than the rest of Europe.

6. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s environmental legislation.

As with workers’ rights, we were promised that this too would be protected post-Brexit.  We must make sure we do not have weaker legislation on protecting the environment and combatting climate change. We must not become the weak link in Europe.

Finally, it is vital that the voice of Parliament and is heard, loud and clear. In a letter to the Prime Minister we called for new joint structures – a Special Parliamentary Committee - involving both Houses to be set up by October alongside the establishment of the new Brexit unit. There must be a clear role for opposition parties. It will be equally important to ensure that both Remain and Leave voices are represented and with clearly agreed advisory and scrutiny roles for parliament. Representation should be in the public domain, as with Select Committees.

However, it is also clear there will be a need for confidentiality, particularly when sensitive negotiating positions are being examined by the committee. 

We call for the establishment of a special vehicle – a Conference or National Convention to facilitate broader engagement of Parliament with MEPs, business organisations, the TUC, universities, elected Mayors, local government and devolved administrations. 

The UK’s exit from the EU has dominated the political and economic landscape since 23 June, and it will continue to do so for many years to come. It is essential that we enter into these negotiations with a clear plan. There can be no cutting of corners, and no half-baked proposals masquerading as "good old British pragmatism". 

The stakes are far too high for that.