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15 September 2021updated 16 Sep 2021 9:04am

How I mastered the mental game of tennis

To my opponents, I looked like slow movement, straight sets, and an easy ride into the next round. But that was exactly how I won.

By Sarah Manavis

Out of all the girls who turned up to the 2009 Southwestern Buckeye League tournament of Ohio’s best high-school female tennis players, I was matched against the only one who was more than 6ft tall. She stood inches above a sea of young girls crowded into a park in early October, ready to compete to be the best in the region. I, by comparison, was 5ft 5in with bad posture, wearing an ill-fitting jacket and too much eyeliner. I didn’t know what she thought of me when I walked on to the court, but I could have guessed.

No teenager can claim real self-awareness, but at 15, I could sense how I looked to my opponents: slow movement, straight sets, and an easy ride into the next round. That autumn morning was no different. By every metric, this girl – rightly – thought she was better than me. But after an hour of play, I had beaten her 6-4, 6-3. No matter what any of these players thought they were seeing, I knew they were looking at a Trojan horse.

The British tennis player Emma Raducanu won this year’s US Open as an unseeded 18-year-old who made it into the competition as a qualifier – a first in the Open Era for both men and women. She won ten matches, including the final, without dropping a set. Her Grand Slam debut was only two months before, at Wimbledon, when she was forced to retire in the fourth round due to “breathing difficulties”. It was presumed to be a panic attack, and the public backlash was swift.

Raducanu did not make history at the US Open purely through strength of mind. But in every match, despite what happened at Wimbledon, she kept her cool. After her semi-final, she told the crowd about the advice she had received from Tim Henman – stay present, focus on each point – and that she wasn’t thinking about anyone else. While Novak Djokovic smashed his racquet on the ground just a few games before losing his final in three sets, Raducanu won a Grand Slam minutes after having to stop for an injury, blood dripping from her knee.

What I learned during my ten-year tennis career – at the tournaments, camps and training sessions I was driven for hours to attend, before quitting at my peak aged 16 – was that tennis is a mind game. It isn’t about who’s the strongest or the most technically talented. It’s about who has the most mettle. The best players in the world know that this is how you win.

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My relationship with tennis didn’t begin with some fabled euphoria upon picking up my first racquet. It began on a summer evening in 2000 when a babysitter took me, aged six, to watch her sons’ lesson, and the ­teacher invited me to join in. He had a bright red ­mullet and wore aviator glasses and ran what I now assume must have been an illegal business, reserving courts at a nearby country club and getting parents to pay him in cash. That night, I had fun. My mother signed me up for group lessons with this man, who then became my coach. The courts I practised on were clay – a rarity for kids, even most professionals – and I learned to use slips and slides to my advantage. This was unusual. But everything about me and tennis made an unusual pairing.

My talent became clear at age 11, when I started beating the other girls. Tennis stopped seeming like a child’s hobby and began to hold the promise of an entire future. My team was ranked best in the state (Ohio is one of the most populous states in the US). My mother spoke to wealthy parents about the full scholarships their daughters had won to expensive universities. I could be like them. So at the age of 12, tennis became my job.

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When I wasn’t at lessons, I practised my serve alone, played against a wall, or asked older players to annihilate me on the court. I couldn’t afford a membership to the clubs where my peers played: instead, I went to summer training camp and entered tournaments around the state, where I had a regional ranking. I was improving as I approached the crucial years when scholarships were awarded, but my game had obvious flaws. My skill was unreliable, my talent limited by my body. I wasn’t tall and lean like the best players. I wasn’t built to move with grace or agility.

But my mental game was worse. I played only as well as my opponent. When something went wrong, my flimsy composure evaporated. I threw minor tantrums on the court. I spent one match melodramatically rubbing my tennis elbow after each lost point, moaning at the baseline. At the set break my mother whispered to me: “You’ve made it very clear to everyone that your arm is hurting.”

Despite the time and money my family was pouring into my game, I wasn’t making the same leaps towards professional play as the other girls on my team. In my first high-school season, I was only one win away from making the main team. I lost by a clear margin. I didn’t feel like my future was slipping away from me, but that the future I’d pictured had never been real. I had hit my ceiling. It was impossible to see a way through.

After finishing my first season for the junior team, I read Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis – Lessons from a Master after a coach recommended it to my mother. It was by the American  former world number four player Brad Gilbert. He said that although he didn’t have the skill of Pete Sampras or Boris Becker, he beat them by using his brain as much as they used their bodies. His thesis was simple: as long as you had some talent, you could thrash most players by matching your strengths to their weaknesses. You could keep your cool while making your opponent lose theirs.

It felt like seeing new colours. Suddenly, players who were physically intimidating became easy to beat. Sending the ball to her forehand twice, then to her backhand, guaranteed a ball in the net. The anxiety I created by taking extra time to perform my serve would mean she always returned too long. I kept the book with me for months, the pages rippled by sweat and Gatorade. At tournaments, I wasn’t crumbling under pressure. I filled a notebook with details about my  game, taking notes on my opponents and writing analyses of what I did wrong after each loss.

After several good tournaments that gave me my first trophies, I found a better coach. I signed up for personal training three times a week, where I and other children had our body fat measured with plastic pincers.

While I was working to improve my fitness and my form, my reasons for doing so had shifted. These physical changes were all in aid of the game I was playing in my head. Tennis stopped being about grace and iron and strength and became a puzzle. Even if I didn’t win, there was no one I couldn’t figure out.

My metamorphosis was complete when I returned for the next season. I was 15 and winning against girls I had lost to the previous year, girls who hadn’t seen me play in the interim. One, a close friend, asked for a line judge during our match, certain I could only be winning through cheating. Another, after losing to me 6-1, 6-2, requested a rematch (in which she then only won a single game). Their shock was palpable. I hadn’t undergone a physical transformation – I still looked scrappy compared to the poised, rich girls who’d been perfecting their technique since they could walk. And yet I was beating every player our coach put in front of me.

For some time, this was enough to make the effort worthwhile. I had never been better at the sport and my record reflected that. But unlike the naturally gifted players I often came across, my talent wasn’t enough to carry me. Most wins were a struggle. To beat the better opponents I faced as I progressed, I was constantly wrangling with my emotions. I repeated mantras aloud even when I was winning, always at risk of losing everything if I lost my head. The solitude of singles tennis is a unique kind of torture. I felt more tired after these matches than ever before. I’d fall asleep before it was dark and only wake up when it was light again.

I finished the season nearly undefeated. I qualified for a major competition ill with what I later found out was swine flu. I beat a girl I’d been losing to since my clay court days. I talked with my mother about scholarships: if I kept this up, we might not have to pay for my degree. I thought about a future where tennis became inextricable from who I was, where being an athlete was my identity.

By then it was nearly December. I was 16 and facing a winter of hours-long daily practice in the dark. I was going to be coached for an extra day a week: the little free time I had devoted to practice. My family were going to pay for more tournaments with money they didn’t have. Was this really what I wanted? Was tennis all I was? Maybe there was a reason I’d always felt so out of place.

Quitting tennis was like calling off a wedding: I met with my coach, my trainer, and my teammates, to tell them the thing in which I had invested my whole self wasn’t what I thought it would be. It just wasn’t a good match. I was going to be somebody else now.

The girls I played with won scholarships to good schools. Kids I once practised with are now famous professionals. One, Caty ­McNally, was a doubles finalist in this year’s US Open. But proximity can encourage delusions of grandeur. I stood beside great talents, but no one, myself included, believed I would ever be as good as them.

After I quit, I didn’t touch a racquet for more than two years. I didn’t play properly again for nearly ten. When I started playing with my boyfriend in 2018, I was startled to find my old form still coded into my body. My knuckles clicked straight into my severe Western positioning on my old career racquet.

My boyfriend and I tease each other when we play a bad point, mimicking people who take casual matches too seriously. The other day, he realised that doing so actually gets to me. He can trigger a double fault just by lightly mocking my occasionally poor performance. It’s strange to admit to myself, at 27, how I’ve lost the composure I had at 16. How strange to think that it was this body, this mind, that achieved all that. How strange to think how fast it all disappeared.

My prized memories of tennis will never be of winning. What stays with me are the times I was underestimated, while I was quietly finding a weak backhand or a ­tendency to choke at the net. My memory is of how high I got on other players ­miscalculating me, of feeling giddy at their frustration when I was guiding them to make mistakes. Of the ­moments when I saw them realise that, even if it appeared differently, I was the one in control.

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor