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Mental health in tennis

Tennis Accent Staff

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Anthony Gruppuso -- USA Today Sports

BY CARLOS NAVARRO — @TheMagician5GS

2012.

Flushing Meadows. People eagerly awaited the U.S. Open match of the day, played in the iconic city of New York’s night session. On one side stood the so-called GOAT (or not – that is up to you…). On the other side was a local star, an ATP titlist, a loyal Davis Cup competitor under the USA flag and an ATP Finals Maestro. It was Labor Day, and you could not possibly be in a better place. There was no better moment. Take a breath and cherish it.

Yet, that match was never played. It was neither due to weather nor an unexpected injury. It was merely because one of the two players just couldn’t play. He was unable to. He felt weak and helpless, even when surrounded by his nearest and dearest.

The official reason from the tournament was said to be “precautionary measures”. The real reason lay in a succession of panic attacks every 10 or 15 minutes. These panic attacks eventually lead to an anxiety disorder that gets mixed with cardiac arrhythmias. Those who suffer from it are unable to sleep as they are filled with negative thoughts. The anxiety from the ATP Tour is completely overwhelming for some.

 

We are aware of all this information because, one afternoon in 2015, Mardy Fish sat down, relived the experience and wrote down his thoughts on mental health. His purpose was to lead by example and give advice to athletes dealing with the most lethal weapon mankind has: the human mind.

 

It was never his intention, but Mardy Fish became a tennis trailblazer. We have several examples of pioneers within our sport – Rod Laver, a key asset in tennis’s transition to the Open Era.

Ivan Lendl, the man who paved the way for new training methods involving a bigger load of physical work. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, through their rivalry, got tennis involved into “fan wars” and made tennis a “mass-culture-sport” for better and worse. Every single one of them may have a bigger trophy cabinet at home, but none will ever show as much bravery and honesty as Mardy Fish did the moment he finished writing.

This will be the seventh edition of the U.S. Open since Fish, the Los Angeles native, decided not to set foot on Arthur Ashe Stadium. It seems like a reasonable amount of time for mental health to be a hot topic within our sport, isn’t it? Yet the lack of coverage about it is both alarming and painful for those who know what Mardy is talking about.

As of today, if we were to read a piece of news about someone’s withdrawal, we would be able to list a handful of muscles or parts of the body where the pain might come from. If we think about what should ‘tennis player X’ or ‘tennis player Y’ work on in order to evolve as a player, we go straight to his liabilities, pointing out the worst shot of his or her repertoire. The fact that the athlete MUST feel good about him or herself is completely overlooked. Remember, mens sana in corpore sano.

 

Have you ever seen any movement from the ATP or WTA regarding this topic? Any campaigns to prevent possible attacks, any messages to players that might help them identify symptoms? The governing bodies of the sport have always tried to paint a compelling picture of tennis. They have no modesty in showing long gym sessions that portray the sport as a herculean effort which, based on work and determination, will reward players with positive results in due time.

How many preseason videos from Dominic Thiem, Denis Shapovalov or Stefanos Tsitsipas include any kind of talk with psychologists? I’ll get back to you on that: none. It is no fun watching a tennis player open up on video. We only know about this issue since some players are not hesitant to speak up. They want to show how pro sports put them into very dark places.

It has never been more important to remember that if there is any sport which should take care of the mental side, it’s tennis. Whatever takes place inside the mind is what ultimately separates the legendary tennis players from the merely great or moderately successful ones. Tennis’s hierarchy is decided by mental strength.

Let me remind you, there is barely any other sport in which players have to deal with a loss at least once a week. Embracing that idea could very well leave a mark, and not always a positive one – it could destroy one player’s career if s/he is not tough enough. Tennis is all about the players, so perhaps the least it could do is provide a solid platform for help and assistance to those who might need it.

It’s not me who is saying it. This battle cry comes from the players themselves, who are starting to lift the veil of silence in both ATP and WTA circuits. The sport, from its very core, is carrying out a public awakening.

Behind The Racquet is the biggest platform shedding light on these problems. It is a world-known initiative started by Noah Rubin, currently ranked No. 195 in the world. He wants people to get a glimpse of players’ insecurities. Names such as Petra Kvitova, Andrey Rublev, Madison Keys, Dustin Brown or CiCi Bellis have already shared theirs, and this list of players should not go unnoticed – we have Grand Slam and pro title winners. They write stories that show us players’ vulnerabilities – their minds hold the same fears and worries as ours.

Noah himself is a very talkative person. He has opened up on several occasions. He plays in a ruthless environment, and sometimes it is easy to be on the verge of having a breakdown.

He recently wrote this to The Telegraph:

“It all adds up, the loneliness, the failure – you feel like a failure constantly. There are some real problems on tour, a lot of people take time off. Depression is prevalent, there’s lots of alcohol and substance abuse because that’s just how people deal with tennis. It’s not yet in the public domain. I don’t know if people realise alcohol abuse in tennis is a thing. I know a lot of players who to cope and to get ready for the next week spend 12 hours drinking. I don’t drink myself, I never have.”

 

Liam Broady, currently ranked 249, is another example of a tennis player who has had to cope with mental health issues, up to the point of considering retirement. The Briton stopped playing tennis for a short spell — he didn’t feel comfortable with himself.

He said this to The Independent:

“I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted to do anymore because I didn’t feel happy as a person, and I fell out of touch with a lot of people who care about me, which I think is probably a very guy thing to do. On tour it’s kind of a dog-eat-dog world, you don’t want to show weakness to anyone else, you don’t want to say you’re struggling because they’re trying to take food off your plate and you’re trying to take food off theirs.”

Broady got out of that hole by working with a “life coach,” Phil Quirk. It is mentioned in the very same article that the  ATP’s current system of support relies on “tournament doctors and physios raising the alarm.” As the great Johnny Mac would say – are you serious?! If that is correct, it validates the point I made earlier: Nowadays, there is no solid structure on tour that helps players from the get-go.

There are other cases that demonstrate how common depression is on tour. Paula Badosa is a great one – she is a player who is experiencing a breakthrough year, but went through a really hard process in order to be mentally ready. The Spanish player was afraid to step up on a tennis court, to pick up a racquet.

“I just didn’t feel like playing tennis and I also wasn’t willing to do anything. I was not enjoying anything. I felt pressure, obligation and fears. My approach to tennis was not the ideal one, I really had to change my lifestyle”.

She did so with the help of Xavier Budó, her current coach, who recently revealed Paula’s secret that gives me chills: “Paula told me that during the month of September she was crying twice a day.”

How on Earth can players get their self-esteem back from such a dark hole? Budó does so with a distinctive therapy, named “words confrontation.” Let Paula off the leash after she has already faced her fears. Allow players to hit rock bottom so that they ultimately rise from the ashes.

Depression is an illness, not a weakness – and a severe illness at that. The tennis world should not be an accomplice but rather an active element in trying to eradicate it. Tennis should face up to the fact that mental health IS a priority issue in the sport. Depressions do exist. If we don’t have a solid structure on tour, how can a player battle through them? This is where one field of study, backed by players and coaches alike, comes into play – psychology.

There is a myriad of methods for the players to be at the peak of their mental game – from Bianca Andreescu’s creative visualization and meditation to Novak Djokovic’s yoga exercises. Based on my personal experience, EVERY SINGLE PLAYER I have recently spoken to has admitted that mental health is an integral part of tennis. Athletes acknowledge its importance and work on it every day.

One of the various techniques that stirred up public interest was the Amor y Paz philosophy. It was, for many, one of the very reasons why Djokovic lost his competitive aura over so many months. It was, for many, an innovation that came from a tennis guru with delusions of grandeur. The truth is, Amor y Paz is nothing but a method that helps people reconnect with their inner selves. It simply hopes to achieve tennis excellence by enjoying the sport freely, with no internal wars – just inner peace.

Not only the Djokovic family has followed its methods. Two years ago, I had the pleasure to meet Carlos Gómez Herrera, currently sitting at No. 380 in the ATP rankings. Amor y Paz aids him in reaching an ideal state of mind.

“It’s very simple. Do you play better when you are one with yourself, when you are happy and enjoying whatever you are doing, or do you play better when you are under stress, fucked up and with a lot of anger? If you ask that question to ten individuals, they will all choose the former option. How does it help me? It helps me in everything. It helps me in my daily life, in whatever I do. I think this is a well-known fact – once we are emotionally in a good shape, you do things better and in a more straightforward way.”

 

Another authoritative voice who can discuss mental health with wisdom is Alba Carrillo Marín, No. 525 in the WTA rankings. Alba is a psychology student at a distance-learning university. She tries to balance tennis and university. When the topic of how psychology is perceived on the tennis tour is brought up, you could say she is not happy about it.

“I mean, I will never understand how psychological work is seen as an extra job. From my point of view, it is a basic and vital area in the work of an athlete, and it has the same relevance that technical, tactical or physical work. If you do not work on your mind, you are missing something. At the end of the day, I have come to understand that the thing that makes a difference in tennis is how you mentally approach and deal with clutch moments. If you do not know yourself as a person or as an athlete and you are unable to follow patterns in those moments, you are lost.”

All in all, mental health is an issue that should be more vigorously and urgently covered by the governing body of our sport. It is an integral part of tennis, and the players are focusing in it now more than ever.

The path Mardy Fish created is being followed by more and more people, but we still have a long way to go. To raise awareness about the topic is just the first step – we need to take more concrete action. It is time for the ATP and WTA to make a move.

The Tennis With An Accent staff produces roundtable articles and other articles with group input during the tennis season. Staff articles belong to the TWAA family of writers and contributors, as opposed to any individual commentator. Our staff produces roundtables every week of the tennis season, so that you will always know what the TWAA staff thinks about the important tennis topics of the times.

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