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

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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