Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Nadal's pursuers might want to embrace pessimism as an action plan

Before Corrado Barazzutti took the court against Bjorn Borg in the 1978 French Open semifinals, he summed up his chances succinctly: "The only way I can win is if they let me bring a gun on court."

The Italian, known as "The Little Soldier," was right. Barazzutti didn't get a firearm past security, and Borg struck him down in three quick sets. But going into the match, Barazzutti's pessimism just might have been the only hope he had.

Say what? Tennis can be a mysterious game, but this much we all know: You can only win if you're confident. That's a hard-and-fast rule. Intangibles like a player's emotional state always have played a big role in determining the outcome of matches. You don't have teammates to prop you up or give you a needed breather. It's all on you. Without confidence, you're nothing.

Except... it's also true that confidence sometimes tips over into hubris. Chris Evert, for example, refused to believe her game's weaknesses -- her serve, her net game, her physicality -- mattered. And for years, through supreme concentration on her strengths, they didn't. But then Martina Navratilova, at one time 2-14 against Evert, started to beat her regularly and increasingly with ease. When a reporter asked what she had to do to best her rival again, Evert snapped: "I'll ask Chris Evert how she did it three years ago." Of course, the Chris Evert of three years before had beaten a less-mature, less-focused Navratilova. Chris America, grudgingly, had to eat some humble pie and rejigger her game and fitness before she could finally halt Martina's winning streak over her at 13.

Evert's plausible deniability is not unique among champions. Indeed, it's the norm. Being confident for a match, pumping yourself up, sometimes requires that you block out niggling unpleasant truths. What champions have to watch out for is destructive stubbornness. Let's consider Roger Federer. Time and again when facing Rafael Nadal's bowling-ball cross-court forehand on clay, he has resisted using the slice or even stepping back and giving his stroke some air. He has been determined to stand at the baseline and come over the ball as if he were playing on low-bouncing indoor carpet. It's almost as if he decided to embrace his one flaw, that he believed that through sheer will he could make his weakness something beautiful, and thus formidable -- like Maria Callas highlighting her prominent nose for portraits.

Lesser players do not dare try such a thing against Nadal. Painfully aware of their limitations, they move back, setting up camp in Timbuktu if they have to. Or they attack the net more, use the drop shot, try giving Nadal moon balls. So far, nothing has worked against the great Spaniard on clay, but that doesn't mean nothing ever will. Those who have doubts about their game in general or their chances against a particular opponent often wilt under pressure. They're also more likely to try something different ... and, just maybe, achieve a breakthrough.

"There's nothing particularly wrong with being more pessimistic than optimistic," says David Rakoff, who just wrote a book on the subject. "Optimism is broad-based non-detail-oriented thinking; pessimism is detail-oriented thinking."

That's what it takes to beat Nadal on clay -- and, for that matter, Federer on hard court. Detail-oriented thinking. An understanding of your and your opponent's limitations and how to obscure the former and exploit the latter. That's how Andy Murray defeated Federer on Sunday in the Shanghai Masters final. As his soap opera-ish failures in the majors show, the Scotsman has doubts. Watch him on court for five minutes -- muttering to himself, screaming like an animal caught in a trap -- and you know this is not a player who's supremely confident he can beat all comers. So against Federer and Nadal and Novak Djokovic, he schemes. He changes things up; he pokes and prods, angling for any possible advantage. It often works. He may eventually doubt himself right into a major championship.

Can Federer do the same thing? During his years as the undisputed king of tennis (2004-07), he didn't care what his opponent brought to the table. He was going to roll over him -- and he was going to do it his way. His struggles over the past nine months, however, might mean he's reached the point that Evert reached in 1984, a recognition that it's time to either change things up or go home. With a new coach on board and a more aggressive playing style recently on display, he appears to have chosen the former route.

In short, the new unbeatable status of Rafael Nadal, perhaps the most humble and improvement-obsessed World No. 1 ever, has launched an exciting new chapter on the tour. The autumn campaign, usually sleepy time in Tennisworld, is full of billowing smoke and clamorous noise this year. Nadal's pursuers, with rebel yells at the ready, are trying out every mode of weaponry. As they prepare to take on Nadal next season, listen for the battle cry, "Remember the Barazzutti!"

Courtesy: OregonLive

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