The Psychology of Defending Points

Historical Difficulty with Repeating

Rafael Nadal won nearly everything of importance from the onset of the clay court season of 2010 through the conclusion of the US Open 2010.  Nadal’s 2011 did not feature the same level of success.  The same could be said for Nadal’s 2008 French Open, Wimbledon, and Olympic Gold trifecta was followed by an Australian Open title in 2009 and not much else from Nadal.  Jim Courier first launched himself into the top tier of tennis by winning both Indian Wells and Miami in 1991.  After winning the 1992 Australian Open, Courier claimed the number one ranking right as he had many points to defend.  Courier stumbled at both hard court events and lost the number one ranking.  Courier of course rebounded winning two indoor events in a now defunct Asian indoor swing that followed Miami, winning the Italian Open and winning the French Open to reclaim the number one ranking.  Still, Courier admitted that the computer had impacted his play in Miami and California.  For the remainder of 1992 and 1993, Courier would simply say a player cannot beat the computer and therefore should simply ignore it.

Different Approaches

John Feinstein’s 1991 book Hard Courts explored how at that time U.S. born players such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe viewed the number one ranking as something to claim and defend.  He noted that European players such as Boris Becker and Mats Wilander looked at the number one ranking like an honor to attain, but did not view it as something akin to a boxing heavy weight title that requires defense.  Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg were already exceptions to Feinstein’s observation.  The presence of these exceptions throws some doubt onto the notion in the first place.  Undoubtedly, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all take pride in holding the number one ranking as well.

Still, if one considers that Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg had pretty similar levels of success with the lone exception of their time at number one.  Becker never finished a single season ranked number one and held the ranking for a total of twelve weeks.  Edberg finished 1990 and 1991 ranked number one and spent seventy-two total weeks atop of the rankings.  A sixty week difference implies to me that Becker did not care a great deal about holding the number one ranking.  This counter-intuitive approach would save a player from any stresses associated with fears of losing the top spot.  If a player does not care where he is ranked, he may be free to play better tennis in any given situation.

The approach of holding the number one ranking and defending it resonates more with my gut than the idea of keeping the ranking at arms length.  Jimmy Connors held the number one ranking for many weeks when most tennis pundits considered Bjorn Borg to be the top player in the world.  John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl locked horns over the number one ranking and a changing of the guard occurred in 1985 from which McEnroe never really recovered.

Today’s players seem to be somewhere in-between Feinstein’s two approaches to the number one ranking.  Roger Federer clearly wanted to hold the top spot in 2008, but when he lost the number one ranking it did not stop him from winning the 2008 US Open or having a successful 2009.  Rafael Nadal philosophically says that he seeks to be the best he can be and if that is behind someone else being number two is not bad.  He however says he will always seek to improve making a return to number one plausible.  Even Pete Sampras gracefully gave up defending number one in 1999 only to win Wimbledon in 1999 and 2000 while also winning the US Open in 2002.

Hunter versus Hunted

To get to my point, I think Novak Djokovic will need to come to some sort of solution that works for him.  From January 2011 through September 2011, Djokovic won nearly every big tournament.  He piled up enough computer points that the need to defend points from March through June 2012 should be minimal.  To paraphrase a comment on this week’s power rankings, Novak does not need to win everything in 2012, but he does need to win more than anyone else does.  His Australian Open title is a great start to carving out a 2012 that will keep him atop of the rankings.  Djokovic is a smart guy and seems to be taking all of this in stride.

Roger Federer, despite being thirty and having finished each season starting in 2001 among the top eight players in the world, seems to be relishing a chance to build his rankings up toward a tangible goal rather than defending territory earned in the previous seasons.  To this point, Federer’s three consecutive titles place him in a clear second slot for 2012.  At both Indian Wells and Dubai, Federer has gained on Djokovic relative to last year’s results.  2012 is shaping up to be a season in which the old man may get one last run at the top while Novak methodically puts together a year that leaves him number one when the season finishes.  Given the wrinkles added by the Olympic games, some positive signs in Andy Murray’s game, and Rafa’s iron will, 2012 may be a most interesting year in terms of tennis psychology.

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