Nov/18

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Can American Male Tennis Players Break Their Toxic Attitude of Entitlement?

Here’s an interesting take on how American male pros might have all the strokes and skill, but they don’t have the humility needed to be champions. With the exception of John Isner, all the American male players on tour under-performed this year and no American man has appeared in a Grand Slam finals since Andy Roddick in 2003 US Open. Dominic is a high-level teaching pro who has coached at the Canas Tennis Academy and now with the Cliff Drysdale club, who writes that American junior players have to develop more humility.

Peak Tennis: Cultivating the Right Attitude.
By Dominic Mahboubi

As any elite player, coach, or trainer will tell you, the path to professional tennis begins in infancy, and is arduous and long. This is an understatement. The marathon journey to becoming a tennis professional is downright grueling; it is a brutal strife of attrition and endurance, a true-and-tried test of the very physiological limits of the human form, individual will, and mental fortitude. Only the toughest and grittiest prevail through the ranks to at long last set foot on the sacred grounds of the four tournaments that make up tennis’ grand stage. Each and every player that takes the court in Melbourne, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and New York has devoted his entire existence to the game, and has paid every price, made every sacrifice possible, along the way. And yet, beyond these die-hard warriors lies another level still.

In the most recent fifteen years of men’s tennis – that is, since Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open title – the major tournaments have been commanded with utter and unprecedented dominance by a select few. Numbers characterize the magnitude their dominance far more poignantly than any words ever could: 5 European players – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka – have won a whopping 56 of 60 titles, with the former most three taking credit for 51. When Roger, Rafa, and Novak aren’t winning majors, more than half the time they’re losing in the finals, mostly to one another. So how in the world do a few guys manage to out-grind, outlast, and out-compete a pack of the fiercest, toughest competitors in the world for a decade-and-half, losing to almost nobody except each other? Contrary to the superlatives offered by awe-struck commentators and journalists around the globe, Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic are not beyond the mortal realm, have not received never-before-seen gifts of talent, and are indeed restricted to the same twenty-four hour days as are their counterparts. What separates these champions is the same, less-than-sensational phenomenon that produces success in every discipline and craft the human experience has on tap. It’s the one thing nobody wants to talk about, and yet it speaks the loudest: attitude.

For a tennis player, forging and maintaining the right attitude is a multi-dimensional tightrope act. Exhibiting mastery over one’s body and mind, and cultivating the ascetic concentration requisite for peak performance demands many years of training and keen discipline. In order to weather the storm of the learning process and thrive in spite of the challenges it deals, a developing player’s attitude is highly refined in its composition. At the very core, an elite player must have self-worth, as it endows him with the belief that he is worthy of greatness, achievement, and happiness. Without self-worth, a player can never muster the inner-strength to reach new heights or dethrone the champions presently sitting atop the rankings, and will always be limited by an inadequate self-image. A player’s outermost layer of attitude, plainly visible in the figure we see when he takes the court, presents a thick shell of confidence – that is, a deep trust in his own abilities to perform. Such confidence is critical because a player must be able to disengage the mind and allow himself to enter a state of flow, so that intuition may take over. What is ever more valuable and difficult to develop and sustain is the fragile mesh that makes up a player’s interior, settling just below the surface to provide balance and keep his core intact. This mesh is humility, a modest estimation of one’s own self-importance, and a belief that achievement – although reachable – must be earned. Humility serves to connect a player’s innermost belief that he is worthy of greatness, and his confidence in his ability to manifest his potential. As such, tennis professionals must have the self-worth to believe, the confidence to execute, and the humility to suffer and grind for it day in and day out.

Humility is often challenging to develop, but it is far more difficult to sustain. When a player receives feedback from his efforts in the form of match results, it not only affects his ranking, but his self-image. Given the ruthless and strenuous terrain of the tour, parents and coaches tend to err on the side of caution, and provide support to their player as he goes through rough patches in an attempt to prevent damage to his self-worth. Yet, it is in fact the other side of the coin that is far more menacing. When a player begins to win matches with great frequency, he can fall prey to entitlement, which is to say that he becomes beholden to the belief that he is deserving of achievement or treatment he has not yet earned. Entitlement inhibits humility, and leads the player to resist struggle and change. Hunger is dampened, and comfort is sought before progress. The player becomes attached to the identity to which he feels entitled, and refuses to embrace the harsher realities of the journey he once wished to walk. In this state, he has lost his will to grind, to suffer for success, and his relationship with his dream becomes distorted.

What makes tennis professionals successful lies in their ability to battle back from overwhelming adversity. But what makes tennis champions – especially those special three – the best of all time lies in their commitment keep their respective humility intact in the face of overwhelming achievement. In Nadal’s autobiography, he recounts a particular moment returning home from winning the Boy’s 12-and-under Spanish National. During celebration with his family, his long-time Coach and Uncle Toni offers no smiles, and speaks only stern words: “Rafael, don’t get too excited about today’s victory. There’s still a long, hard road ahead. And it all depends on you.” Toni’s treatment of Nadal forcibly instilled a deep sense of humility that kept his feet on the ground and his head focused in the present. Rafa was availed only the oldest tennis balls his Uncle had, while newer balls were reserved for other players. He always stayed late to sweep the clay after practice and never anticipated lavish treatment. Now, eleven French Opens and a couple hundred million dollars later, nothing has changed, and his humility remains stronger than ever.

The landscape of American tennis presents a far different story. Again, the numbers don’t lie: post-2003, Americans have zero showings in grand slam finals, 24 short of Nadal. And still, rising juniors are paraded around and touted as being the champions of tomorrow, with contracts, gear, and facilities that suggest they have already landed in the winners’ circle. With no Uncle Toni to cut short the celebration, it is this phenomenon that continues to hinder the growth of American tennis. When we flatter junior players and rising professionals with a flurry of accolades and usher them into commentator booths for post-match interviews on national television, we imbue them with a sense of themselves that suggests that, although they haven’t made it yet, they ought to, and they deserve to. Assistants pick up their balls, parents carry their bags, coaches sweep their courts, and the rest of us click around furiously on the Internet, probing through their regional ranking lists. While seemingly inspiring, this treatment is toxic. It’s not ill-intentioned, as we believe we are galvanizing their hearts with self-worth and their exteriors with confidence; actually, we are injecting their egos with entitlement, and diminishing whatever humility remains. The answer to American tennis woes is not finer facilities, tougher training regimens, or more talented infant-athletes. The question we need to ask ourselves is: how to we develop humility in our players, and how do we sustain it? It all starts with attitude.

Dominic Mahboubi

Grove Isle Tennis Center, Miami, Fla.

Adult Program DirectorFederer

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8 comments

  • Doug Day · November 26, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    Team sports members seldom lack for humility as their fate rises and falls with effort shared & egos contained.
    The fact that Tony is family could echoe deeper purpose too.
    Kyrios reaching out to disabled kids was an effort to ground his celebrity in real world emotion.

  • Hartt · November 27, 2018 at 7:21 am

    This is a fascinating piece and his ideas make a lot of sense.

  • Hartt · November 27, 2018 at 7:49 am

    This reminds me of the story about Shapovalov after he beat Rafa at the Rogers Cup last year. He was cramping badly and asked if he could take the elevator to his press conference. The rule at the National Training Centre was that you had to be 19 to take the elevator, and Denis was just 18. After he’d experienced a packed stadium cheering like crazy, he was told no, he still had to take the stairs.

    One thing I like about Shapo’s attitude is he always stresses that he has to work hard to continue to improve.

  • Scoop Malinowski · November 27, 2018 at 7:57 am

    One of the tennis related articles I have read all year. Excellent work Dominic, thank you for sharing it to our readers. Very important article for anyone.

  • Doug Day · November 27, 2018 at 6:38 pm

    Hunger.
    Sometimes if I’m up, even 30-5 and feeling uneasy for any reason, I reverse the score in my head. Whether I’m serving or recieving it flips the dynamic & that’s better 90% of the time.

  • Scoop Malinowski · November 27, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    Doug, that is smart mental tactic, you must have read Winning Ugly 🙂

  • Dan Markowitz · November 27, 2018 at 9:00 pm

    Yes that’s what BG said Lendl would do. If he was up 4-0 he’d convince himself he was down 4-0.

  • Doug Day · November 28, 2018 at 8:07 am

    Proudly busted by the BG literati. Ok so on every level every player even every point there are techniques to help refocus attention. Somehow the big three acquire humility and except for Jokers hiccup, bear their fame lightly.

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