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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.