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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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