In tennis as much as any sport, mental prep can be the difference between potential and production.
WE SEE IT TIME and time again: An unforced error here, a missed break point there, then, just like that, a player's confidence melts midmatch. And until Novak Djokovic's stunning breakthrough this season, nothing turned up Slam heat in recent seasons like facing Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. The self-doubt of would-be opponents was palpable: Andy Murray's furrowed brow, Robin Soderling's drooping shoulders.
A defeatist demeanor makes sense. Federer and Nadal have won 25 of the past 31 Grand Slams, and each has a winning percentage of .873 in Slam play; only Bjorn Borg (.898) has a better record. "In order to win against Rafa or Roger, you have to believe," says Djokovic. "There is no other way."
By becoming a believer, Djokovic has made himself the player others fear to face this season. The 23-year-old Serb won the Australian Open in January and was 32-0 through Madrid in early May. His start is the best in men's tennis since John McEnroe went 42-0 to open 1984. Meanwhile, Federer and Nadal have started to appear human. Heading into Rome, Federer, who turns 30 in August, was 27-6 with only one title (Qatar, in January). Djokovic's win over Nadal in the final at Madrid, his sixth title of the season, snapped Nadal's 37-match win streak on clay. It also put Djokovic in position to overtake Nadal for the No. 1 ranking and set him up for a run at his first French Open title (May 22 to June 5).
Djokovic, who cops to having lost focus in recent seasons, says he owes his recent success to a tweak in the mental side of his game. "I wasn't emotionally stable," he says. "I went through some crises over the past two years, especially the first six months of 2010, when I was disturbed by things in my private life." Djokovic refuses to reveal the nature of his problems, but the toll was evident in his sensitivity to hot weather, bad calls and fans in the stands. What changed? "The difference is my growing up," he says. "It improved my self-belief and confidence."
Psychologists agree that the power of positive thinking is a game changer. "Human attention is limited," says Craig Wrisberg, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Tennessee. "You might think about a line judge, the media, who's watching or winning -- but what's that got to do with the next point?" Knowing your opponent is virtually unbeatable piles on yet another distraction. "Expectations can steal your attention space," adds Wrisberg.
Luckily, redirecting attention is a skill that can be developed. "You take bad moments, go through them, stay focused and keep fighting," says Claudio Pistolesi, Soderling's coach for the early part of 2011. Pistolesi's former pupil acknowledges that he's also trying to change his attitude. "On court I'm trying to focus on the good things, even if I'm not playing well," he says. "Sometimes when I'm frustrated I'll rush and think about the next game too soon. You really have to stay in the present."
And lately, the present belongs to Djokovic.
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ESPN The Magazine: May 30, 2011