Any tennis fan, or any sports fan for that matter, knows that mental toughness is one of the most important qualities needed to attain success in sport. In tennis, where there are very few skill differences among the competitors near the top of the rankings, mental toughness often spells the difference between joining the tennis elite and remaining in the second tier of quality players. So what does it mean exactly to be mentally tough?
Mental toughness refers to the ability to place oneself in the proper mindset required to attain a goal. This definition is important in gaining a proper understanding of mental toughness in sport because it implies that mental toughness in sport is most ideally present in a competitor throughout the course of a competition, not just in crucial moments.
One unfortunate aspect of mental toughness, though, is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint particular moments when players have used mental toughness to claim a win. If a player triumphs, the victory is usually attributed to his superior skills over the losing player. In contrast, when a mental breakdowns occurs, it's usually so painfully obvious that the loss was caused by a lack of mental toughness.
This is why, perhaps, mental toughness in tennis is best understood by studying cases of mental meltdowns in the sport:
Mental Breakdowns in Professional Tennis
1. Serena Williams (2009 US Open Semifinal)
A lot, if not too much, has been said about Serena's defeat to Kim Clijsters in the 2009 US Open semifinals. What made the loss so intriguing was not that Serena lost, but how she lost. Serena was behind 4-6, 5-6, 15-30, when she was called for a foot fault (in effect causing a double fault) and immediately after, was issued a code violation and penalized a point for verbally abusing the linesperson who made the call. That point penalty on match point meant Serena had lost the match.
Some might argue that this case isn't really worth talking about since Serena was already losing anyway, but those who know her well enough also know that she can pull off amazing comebacks, and this could've been one of them. However, Serena's mental breakdown, robbed her of the chance to try.
Serena's case highlights one area of mental toughness: THE ABILITY TO CONTROL ONE'S TEMPER.
2. David Nalbandian (2006 Australian Open Semifinal)
Fourth seed Argentine David Nalbandian was up 6-3, 7-5 against world Nr. 54 Marcos Baghdatis, when suddenly, the supposed walk in the park against the "unknown" opponent turned into a crawl in a tunnel of barbed wire. Nalbandian went on to lose the next three sets 3-6, 3-6, 4-6 to hand the Cypriot a place in a his first grand slam final.
Nalbandian admitted that he had inexplicably lost focus after taking the first two sets quite easily. Many called it a classic case of overconfidence, showing in Nalbandian a lack of ABILITY TO REMAIN FOCUSED WHILE ENJOYING AN ADVANTAGE.
3. Jana Novotna (1993 Wimbledon Final)
In 1993, Jana Novota was well on her way to winning Wimbledon for the first time. She was up 4-1 in the third and deciding set and was serving ahead at 40-30 in the sixth game when she hit a double-fault that landed nowhere near the service box. She was choking, and she knew it. After losing 6-7, 6-1, 4-6, Jana couldn't hold her emotions and bawled like a baby all throughout the awarding ceremonies. Fortunately, she somehow softened the blow by finally winning Wimbledon five years after her meltdown.
Jana obviously collapsed under the weight of knowing that she was about to win Wimbledon against one of the game's greatest, thus highlighting that THE ABILITY TO OVERCOME SELF-DOUBT is necessary to becoming a champion.
4. Guillermo Coria (2004 French Open Final)
Guillermo Coria, seeded third, was the heavy favorite against Gaston Gaudio, world Nr. 44. Coria had won 18 of his last 19 sets in the tournament, while Gaudio had never gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament. Coria was the best player on red clay and was expected to win his first Grand Slam title that day.
Playing beautifully, Coria built a seemingly insurmountable 6-0, 6-3 lead, until his legs started cramping in the third, causing him to lose the next two sets 4-6, 1-6. The fifth set was going to be the sad end to his French Open campaign. Or not? Coria's cramps suddenly eased, and he found a way to fight back to earn two match points at 6-5 in the fifth. But the comeback against his opponent's comeback wasn't to be; Coria lost 6-8 in the decider.
What happened to Guillermo was heartbreaking - holding a big lead, losing it, then almost coming back to snatch victory, only to lose in the end. It was a roller-coaster ride of a French Open final that showed Coria failing to display THE ABILITY TO MAINTAIN POSITIVE MOMENTUM.