Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Two Points from Doom
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Two Points from Doom 05/07/2010 - 5:54 PM

Ai Ten times a year we choose a cover subject at Tennis Magazine. This is the scenario that typically ensues in the days immediately after we go to press: Said cover subject either falls pray to injury right away, or, if he or she is lucky enough to maintain his or her health, the bottom falls out on his or her career over the next few weeks. By Murphy’s Law, as well as the grand tradition of the Sports Illustrated kiss of death, this is all to be expected. What’s strange is that, as often as not, by the time the issue actually reaches newsstands five weeks later, said cover subject has revived his or her career to the point where it kind of looks like we knew what we were doing all along. In the last year, this is how it went with covers featuring Gael Monfils and Melanie Oudin. Of course, there are the times when we aren't quite so lucky and a completely unforeseen disaster strikes. A couple of days after the 2009 Australian Open men’s final, in which Roger Federer ignominiously served his way to defeat at the hands of Rafael Nadal, we came out with a cover featuring Federer under the bright, shining headline, “Serve Smart.”

What I’m trying to say is that the fates of pro tennis players are unpredictable. Not just over the long term, but, because they play so often, from month to month, week to week, set to set. We’re talking about a sport where two unforced errors in a row is all it takes for you to lose your momentum, your confidence, your cool, maybe even your sense of security about your financial future.

So in a way, the developments of the last week involving Juan Martin del Potro and Ana Ivanovic shouldn’t be all that surprising, even though, as the season began, you would never have believed that by May del Potro would be in the dumps and Ivanovic tentatively rising again. Tennis certainly didn’t: The cover of our January issue this year featured this line, in bold letters: “Juan Martin del Potro: What’s Next for the Game’s New Star.” Somehow, we never predicted wrist surgery.

I like both of these players, for their games and their personalities. It was satisfying to see a young guy like del Potro develop his competitive skills with each major tournament last year, and grow in surprising ways right before our eyes. By the end of the season, he’d revealed what those around him seemed to have known all along: He has the mentality—the stubborn will—of a winner, of a guy who might doubt himself at the beginning of a match, but won’t get caught thinking that way at the end. Even at the top of the sport, it’s rare to see that level of drive and resourcefulness, one that won’t bow to anyone, tied to a world-class game. It wasn’t necessarily obvious, from looking at del Potro, that he had it. The Argentine’s emotions and willfulness are buried deep, and they reveal themselves slowly; but like, say, a similarly deep and emotional champion like Steffi Graf, that only makes them more powerful—he's the closest thing to a tank in tennis. At some level, the reports that del Potro is depressed these days have to be true. You know he’ll feel the loss and frustration of this season, of having his career interrupted at such an inopportune moment. Hell, the times that I’ve been injured and away from the game for a few months have been extremely depressing. All I could think of to do was go shopping. (Shudder, shudder)

I can relate to del Potro, and, as I’ve written here before, I can also relate to Ivanovic, both in her inability to hit a specific stroke, and the total loss of confidence that comes with it. When I competed for real, I went through periods where it felt like I was finding a way to lose, that even if I played well for a few games, or a set, in the back of my mind I was waiting for the truth to come out. The truth being that I couldn’t win a tennis match. Are you surprised that I didn’t win a whole lot of matches with this mindset?

Watching Ivanovic this year, I recognized similar signs in her attitude. If something went wrong in the first game, she was quick to pull her visor down over her eyes in embarrassment and anxiety, as if to say, “I knew this was going to happen,” or “I know what’s coming, and I can’t look.” It’s a terrible feeling to believe that you can’t win. When I’m in that state, the beginning of a match can feel like I'm standing at the bottom of a mountain, with no clue where to start climbing. Errors confirm the truth about yourself, good shots seem like pathetic mirages, delays before the inevitable.

Does this sound overly dramatic, or a little depressing? I’d say it’s the nature of tennis. If your basketball team or baseball team or soccer team is losing, there’s some distance between that failure and yourself. It’s not fun, and it will get to you, but it’s a little like your company not doing well. You may not be good at your job, but it’s still a job, it’s not you. That distance doesn’t exist in tennis. The sport is you.

Today Ivanovic’s run of strong play in Rome ended in the semifinals. Over the course of the week, she’d gone from giddy in victory to quietly satisfied, as if she was beginning to expect to win again. The upside of the personal nature of tennis is that it doesn’t take long for you to start thinking good things about yourself, just like it doesn’t take long to believe the worst. It’s an intensified and compacted version of the swings—from joy to despair and every irrational point in between—that we all go through in our heads each day.

Near the end of her match, Ivanovic did a brief visor clutch after a lost point. The despair had, for the moment, returned. That’s what you get when you’re brave enough to play a sport where you’re never more than two points from changing your entire opinion about yourself. In tennis, you're always poised, hanging, dangling—two points from hope, two points from doom. You never know which way you're going to go.


On that note, have a good weekend. I’m going to count my blessings that I don’t play professional tennis for a living.   


Posted by C Note 05/07/2010 at 06:17 PM

Really nice piece, Steve. You really nailed that last part about Ana. Loved this line:

"Errors confirm the truth about yourself, good shots seem like pathetic mirages, delays before the inevitable."

Posted by naughty T...urbane gentleman 05/07/2010 at 06:23 PM

thanks Steve that is just great stuff. Nice to be reminded that you were one of the few Elf believers early on.

Posted by ariennalee 05/07/2010 at 06:31 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful article. There is a small typo in the opening paragraph that is also a wonderful variation on the Freudian slip: "Said cover subject either falls pray to injury..." It should be "prey" instead of "pray." But as you said, tennis is the kind of sport that defines the self and as such it requires immense amounts of irrational, illogical FAITH. A willingness to surrender to the unknown fate that exists 2 points into the future. So glad I don't play professional tennis either, but also so glad there are those who do with whom I can identify and by whom I can be inspired.

Geez. Wouldn't have known before I wrote this that a busted wrist and a pulled-down visor could provoke such deep self-exploration. Anyway, thanks for the nice piece.

Posted by Nina 05/07/2010 at 06:44 PM

Great article Steve. I've always thought tennis is probably the hardest sport, from a psychologic point of view, that's ever existed. That's why i can't never dislike or hate a player because deep down I admire each one of them for being brave enough to get out there and do the 'job'. I know I wouldn't, couldn't.

Posted by Cami 05/07/2010 at 06:56 PM

for all its elegance and cleanliness, tennis is one of the toughest sports on the mind. you have to play a competitive tennis match at least once in your life to understand how cruel it is, even if you lose or win it. and when you play for a have to be a rock of steadiness and believe deep down that something/someone else is even more important than tennis, otherwise i don't know how you'd be able to move, honestly.

tennis does force you to look your weaknesses straight in the eye, even if you want to or not. not sure that's a good thing, though, confronting your demons day in day out...

as a kid, i used to play competitive tennis, and while i loved the sport, i hated tournaments and i hated losing. at 12, my mom decided that school was more important than tennis, so i stopped playing. i regretted it and blamed my mom for a long time. now I'm 33 and looking back, and seeing what a tennis player's life is like, i think my mom made the right choice. I know myself better now and i don't think I'm cut out that way. Funny how life turns out...

Posted by susan 05/07/2010 at 08:54 PM

"Hell, the times that I’ve been injured and away from the game for a few months have been extremely depressing. All I could think of to do was go shopping. (Shudder, shudder)"


Posted by susan 05/07/2010 at 09:15 PM

therapist to patient: 'so how much shopping have you been doing lately... like, say, blowing an entire month's salary within a few hours?' yeah, sure sign of a funk. don't tell that to fed, though. for whom it is a pleasant extracurricular activity (decompressing from the stress of the tour, knowing you have millions and millions in the bank, must be so much fun)

Posted by SRao 05/08/2010 at 01:06 AM


My biggest regret is that I never played Tennis.Not just Pro-tennis.
It's a regret because,I know how well Tennis pro life would have suited me!

Posted by Stewart 05/08/2010 at 01:19 AM

Ivanovic was looking good until her bad loss to Martinez-Sanchez - though credit to the net rushing Sanchez for not giving Ana time to find her rhythm.

On another note, I was thrilled for Jelena Jankovic's tense win over Serena Williams, and I see her as the #1 challenger to Henin for the French. Regarding the controversy, I couldn't believe the umpire allowed that to happen TWICE in the same tiebreak. On the very first point, Jelena hit a clean ace and Serena had not only been waiting for a decent amount of time but she didn't actually signal, it was simply called by the ump. The 2nd time Serena had just gotten into position and Jelena was just starting her motion, so I think it was a little more valid. The camera didn't show a good angle to see if Jelena was ready on Serena's ace.

While I must admit to a bias against Serena, it's one thing to say to Jankovic afterwards that 'I would never cheat you like that', but actions speak louder than words and I didn't see her admitting to the first clean ace.

Posted by David 05/08/2010 at 06:55 AM

Steven, Steven:

Your candid humility/realism about the fragile state of us humans is so refreshing...
thanx again,


Posted by ata08 05/08/2010 at 09:49 AM

i have loved your writing for a long time, and am (happily) impressed that you continually offer such sublime and thoughtfully crafted pieces. this one reminded me why your voice is so vital for fans of the sport--you write about the game and its players with respect. no one writes about this sport better, more meaningfully.

thank you for that.

Posted by Neena 05/08/2010 at 11:50 AM

Hi Steve,
Excellent post. I generally do not post here but could not help with this one. Reading your articles, I realize that there is a lot of similarity in the way you and Agassi think (wasn't he your favourite player?). Not sure whether you read his book but lot of your thoughts coincide. This is one of the many many quotes I like and remember from the book" No matter how much you win, if you're not the last one to win, you're a loser", resonates a lot with what you have to say about tennis and how personal the outcome of each and every match could be to the player.

Posted by Jeff Esmabe 05/08/2010 at 12:03 PM

nice one steve. anyone can relate. there's no such thing as surety. anything can happen in a blink of an eye.

Posted by JimF 05/08/2010 at 02:22 PM

The interaction between Ivanovic and her coach during the loss to Martinez was revealing, as overheard on the broadcast mikes.

Her coach gave her tactics, telling her to pull her opponent wide to the backhand, because she had less reach.

Ivanvovic's response sounded like a whiny teenager: "The ball just dies. She hits it, it just dies. And she keeps hitting the lines. The balls just die." Ivanovic then went out court and proceeded to hit the ball generally up the middle of the court.

Any encouragement I got from seeing her earlier play was erased by hearing that from a former number one.

Posted by tmfan 05/08/2010 at 02:23 PM

Great article and oh how painfully true. "In tennis, you're always poised, hanging, dangling—two points from hope, two points from doom. You never know which way you're going to go" - and that's what's happening with Fed these days. Can't believe he lost in Estoril. I'm so upset and can only hope he'll do better next week. One more chance before Paris!

Posted by Corrie 05/08/2010 at 06:16 PM

Great piece of writing and really interesting comments. I agree that tennis is one of the hardest sports psychologically and that's exactly what makes it interesting - to see the reaction of the wide ranging cast of characters to both success and adversity.

Even the most successsful, such as Federer and Sampras, end up having to accept defeats as they age and their game goes downhill. It's like life itself, where youthful fit people have to accept it all going pear shaped as they age.

Posted by Larry 05/08/2010 at 07:00 PM

A very good article. Watching pro players compete, we take it for granted that they are and should be mentally tough. We assume that because they're young and have reached this lofty plateau of tennis performance, they must be healthy. We, the amateurs, grant ourselves all the frailties and injuries - and excuses - we need.

Part of this is natural, and even right, for these talented kids have chosen this life; or had it chosen for them. And yet they remain no different at root than the rest of us - sojourners in this tempestuous world.

We admire and watch them in part because they seem so tennis-stable, but as Steve writes, it is an illusion. Even the decline of champions illustrates that the loss of confidence and drive are instrumental in their falls from their respective thrones. Even for a Sampras or Fed, it hurts to lose that which they are already reconciled to losing.

P.S. If you're interested in a great new ebook about tennis, drop me a line at ''

Posted by susan 05/08/2010 at 09:37 PM

time for fed to go shopping. i understand "retail therapy" (purchasing something you want as opposed to the out-for-milk buying) lights up certain area of the brain or raises serotonin levels. but when you already have everything, does it continue to do that?

Posted by Liz (4 Federer & Serena - 4 ever!) 05/09/2010 at 12:38 PM

So sad to hear about Del Potro, I hope he comes back strong. I seem to remember a comment from a player who played Michael Chang after Chang had come back from an injury, saying that he did not feel he played Michael Chang the French Open champ but a player coming back from an injury because Chang lost to the player and he was fighting back to get to winning form again after his injury

It must be tough grinding it out on the tour month after month, losses maybe you can reconcile yourself with but injury is another opponent altogether and one you can't avoid.

I'm glad to hear someone else say shopping is "therapy" -- so true!

Posted by susan 05/09/2010 at 07:49 PM

for each ecstatic instant
we must in anguish pay
e dickinson

Posted by tennisfan 05/10/2010 at 05:36 AM

i love about del potro the contrast between his gentleness and shyness demeanor on court and his monster game. for instance nadal's body language and demeanor is "gung ho" on court but has a much more defensive game

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