The Loneliest Number in Professional Tennis

Sunday, June 18, 2017
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AT THE TINY, TALL SUMMIT of professional tennis, there is room for only one. Preparation for getting there is grueling. The ascent is physically exhausting and psychologically draining. Arrival is not guaranteed. Victory can be fleeting. It’s a lonely journey that gets lonelier the higher you go.

In the game of tennis, even though there is someone across the net, you play alone against the ball and boundaries as much as against your opponent. You rarely talk to or even look at the other player. There’s not enough time. You also can’t afford it psychologically, particularly as you approach the mighty summit of Number One which only a few players ever reach.

Like tennis, golf is a solo sport of mental rigors which mount in direct proportion to the proximity of winning a major tournament. But in golf you play alongside one or two other players. Your caddy is there. You banter, joke, and strategize with others. There’s an occasional exchange of congratulations and encouragement. And there’s little vitriol because each player is competing against the course more than against other players. The focus is primarily internal as players calculate distances, measure risk, and steel themselves against waves of mental melt down.

While tennis certainly has its psychological challenges, the physicality of the game is also highly competitive. It’s about getting that ball ahead of, behind, or out of the reach of the other player—and doing it over and over again with precision. In the process, you bludgeon the ball, make all manner of grunts, rally yourself, celebrate yourself, reprimand yourself, find fault with line judges, perhaps destroy a racket, and occasionally let loose a venomous glare or two at your opponent. In short, the elegant, ostensibly polite game of tennis includes a viciousness that wears on players physically and mentally and often leads them to capitulate in little as well as large ways. Nowhere in sports is this more evident than when the momentum abruptly swings in a tennis match.

The variables and vicissitudes of professional tennis make reaching its summit—not to mention staying there—a gargantuan task that most players just can’t accomplish. It’s not for lack of physical talent, of which there is plenty on the professional circuit. It’s due to mental barriers like anxiety, self-doubt, fear of failure, fear of success, the pressure of expectations, lapses in concentration, and—perhaps most of all—the responsibility of being the ONE who commands the summit alone and is always subject to being dethroned.

Just getting to the summit is an accomplishment, but the fact of having gotten there is not what makes it unique or lonely. What changes the moment you arrive is that everything is then behind you. What lies ahead is either nothing—no more challenges—or a large, looming unknown. Once you penetrate that solitary domain, there’s nothing and no one outside to fight against, which can be terrifying to a psyche that hinges on competitiveness.

Whereas doubts, fears, and pressures comprise one group of barriers, the intensity of aloneness (all-one-ness) is something else. You’ve reached it by breaking through all the other barriers. There’s no guide book after that. You’re literally on your own, face to face with your deepest self. Maybe that’s why Bjorn Borg mysteriously retired when he did. Surely that’s why it’s sad to see champions in different sports clinging to the journey itself instead of realizing what happened when they reached the peak. It was about more than winning and vanquishing. It was about transcending a plethora of veils in human nature and breathing the rarefied air above.

Yes, you can keep playing and even keep winning (which pays very well). But now you’re playing a whole other game. The game of a real champion.


 


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