”Sports teaches you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose-it teaches you about life.”
—Billie Jean King.
”Fame and success and titles stay with you, but they wear out eventually. In the end, all that you are left with is your character.”
“If I were asked to name one aspect of tennis that is the biggest weakness of players of all levels, I would probably say concentration. However good your shots, however fast your movement and reflexes, all is lost if the mind is not controlling every move.
Sportspersons are also human.
Much as we may be intimidated by their almost superhuman prowess on the playing field, they are just as prone to the same worries as any other man or woman.
Stress or panic attacks are no longer uncommon in our heroes.
Stanislas Wawrinka is the latest to open up about his demons detailing the tears he couldn’t prevent before the Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic which incidentally he won after dropping the first set.
The pressure of expectations can be high and the bulky Swiss almost came undone in dramatic fashion.
Speaking to Sport24, Wawrinka said:
“A lot of people are asking me how I was able to take the court, nonchalantly, when five minutes prior to that I had a stress attack and I was trying to hold back tears. I tried [but] I wasn’t able to.
I was close to breaking point – the moment where you let it all out, physically and nervously. I really felt I was at my limit. Maybe with the heat everyone thought I was perspiring.
So, how did I do it? I’ll tell you. I hurt myself. I tried to extend rallies as much as possible – one more shot, and another – to make the legs churn and not the head.
When I’m nervous like that, the fatigue feels a lot, lot stronger. And my legs hurt so much. I even screamed at my box, ‘I can’t make it. I’m dead. My legs are gone’. I was hurting so much. I was pushing myself so hard. I was so out of breath that I finally ended up muffling those little voices in my head.”
Brazilian great Ronaldo was not so fortunate.
The buck-toothed striker pulled out of the 1998 World Cup final against France demoralising his side which then succumbed to Zinedine Zidane’s magic. Many believe the script would have been different had Ronaldo taken the field.
Tennis stars Mardy Fish and Rebecca Marino succumbed to the vagaries of the games and ended their careers prematurely.
Fish struggled with anxiety attacks and a heart problem for three years before calling it a day in 2015.
Writing for Player’s Tribune, Mardy says:
I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the U.S. Open … on Labor Day … on my dad’s birthday … on Arthur Ashe … on CBS … against Roger Federer. I am hours away from playing the greatest player of all time, for a chance at my best-ever result, in my favorite tournament in the world. I am hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career.
And I can’t do it.
I literally can’t do it.
It’s early afternoon; I’m in the transportation car on my way to the courts.
And I am having an anxiety attack.
Actually, I’m having several anxiety attacks — at first, one every 15 minutes or so, but pretty soon every 10. My mind starts spiraling. I’m just freaking out.
My wife is asking me, ‘What can we do? What can we do? How can we make this better?’
And I tell her the truth: ‘The only thing that makes me feel better right now … is the idea of not playing this match.’”
The ironic part is that Mardy Fish always had problems with his weight.
But he turned himself around soon after his marriage in 2009 and lost 30 lbs going from 202 to 172.
In 2011, he became the highest ranked American surpassing his close friend Andy Roddick.
In 2012, he was No. 8.
He was one of the élite.
And that’s when the anxiety levels increased.
“The idea that I wasn’t good enough was a powerful one — it drove me, at an age when many players’ careers are winding down, to these amazing heights. But it also became a difficult switch to turn off. I was, objectively, doing great. And looking back, I wish I had been able to tell myself that. But doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword.”
He started experiencing heart arrhythmias and underwent a corrective procedure called an ablation.
But the anxiety attacks continued.
Things came to a head when he decided that he couldn’t go on court in front of 22,000 spectators at the 2012 US Open and play Roger Federer.
And then he just stopped playing.
He concludes his piece thus:
“But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed.
In fact I’m writing this, in a lot of ways, for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.
And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms.
Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is strength. Seeking information, and help, and treatment, is strength.
And before the biggest match of your career, prioritizing your mental health enough to say, You don’t have to play. You don’t have to play. Don’t play …
That, too, is strength.
As for what comes next, I’m not sure. I’m 33 now, and I know that I’ll never do anything as well as I played tennis. But that’s fine.
I still deal with my anxiety on a daily basis. I still take medication daily. It’s still in my mind daily. There are days that go by where I’ll think to myself, at night, when I’m going to bed: Hey, I didn’t think about it once today. And that means I had a really good day.
Those are the victories, for me.
But there is no tournament to win for mental health. There are no quarterfinals, or semifinals, or finals. I will not be ending this piece with a sports metaphor.”
Because sports end in a result. And life keeps going.
Mine, I hope, is just getting started. “
Rebecca Marino—Canadian top player of the year in 2010 and 2011—quit the game because she could no longer stand the incessant trolling on social media. She had been battling depression for six years.
Marino, however, has not given up on sport completely.
She’s a member of University of British Columbia’s rowing crew.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had a bad day. I honestly can say I’m a different person. That’s why I stepped away from tennis — to find myself and work on my mental and physical well-being.
And here I am.”
“I’m pretty comfortable with how things went. I can’t really look back and wonder: ‘What if?’ I’m in a really great place.
I’m doing things I love now. I wouldn’t change it.”
Rowing is in the family too.
Her uncle, George Hungerford, represented Canada at the 1964 Rome Olympics and clinched gold. Her brother competed at the University of California.
“I actually avoided rowing for a long time.I just thought: ‘I’m never going to wake up at 4 a.m., come to practice, go until I almost want to puke.
Who would want to do that?’
…There’s a camaraderie. You really bond together as a crew.”
Marino still doesn’t watch tennis though.
“In this modern age of living in limelight, everybody wants to be a hero. People will bark, let them bark, they will look bad themselves. I will run my race. Till a junior comes and says ‘Lee, I am beating you all the time’, till I am winning Grand Slams, I will continue to play. I had to earn it and others will also have to earn it. ”
“You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.”
“How I dress is a very personal thing.”
“After a certain distance, you run with your mind, not with your legs.”
How could a seasoned journalist like Rajdeep Sardesai appear so crass, insensitive and sexist on national television?
That’s the question that must be uppermost in the minds of most of his fans (I am one of his many admirers—he also happens to be a Xavierite) when the veteran journo committed a faux pas by asking India’s number one female tennis star, Sania Mirza , the following query:
“Amidst all the celebrityhood, when is Sania going to settle down? Is it going to be in Dubai? Is it going to be in any other country? What about motherhood… building a family… I don’t see all that in the book, it seems like you don’t want to retire just yet to settle down.
…You don’t talk about retirement, about raising a family, about motherhood, what’s life beyond tennis is going to be…”
The response was swift and acerbic—typical Sania.
“You sound disappointed that I’m not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world at this point of time. But I’ll answer your question anyway, that’s the question I face all the time as a woman, that all women have to face — the first is marriage and then it’s motherhood. Unfortunately, that’s when we’re settled, and no matter how many Wimbledons we win or number ones in the world we become, we don’t become settled. But eventually it will happen, not right now. And when it does happen I’ll be the first one to tell everybody when I plan to do that.”
Sardesai quickly backtracked realising his erroneous line of questioning.
“I must apologise, I framed that question very badly. I promise you, you’re right, I would never ask this question to a male athlete…”
True, very true. Such a question would never be put to a male sportsperson.
Neither should it be put to any sportsperson.
There was very little logic or reasoning to Sardesai’s enquiry. These are the type of questions every single career woman (or man) learns to field from ‘friendly’ , inquisitive neighbourhood ‘aunties‘—not from a TV presenter of Sardesai’s caliber.
While not detracting from the many sacrifices she has made to come so far, it must be pointed out that Mirza is in her late 20s—not late 30s. She is a happily married, healthy young woman. She can have it all—should she choose.
The interrogation was improper. And Sardesai had his just desserts.
Mirza was on television promoting her autobiography ‘Ace against odds’ coauthored with her father Imran Mirza and journalist Shivani Gupta.
He almost pulled off another miracle, didn’t he?
After coming back from the dead against Marin Cilic in the quarters, Roger Federer was leading 2-1 against Milos Raonic only to lose his bearings—figuratively and literally—failing in the last two sets in yet another gruelling five-setter.
The Swiss missed the French Open this year—his first Grand Slam since 1999, ending an unbelievable streak of appearances.
With Novak Djokovic knocked out early, die-hard Fed fans believed this was his best chance to clinch his 18th Slam. But it was always going to prove an uphill battle for a 34-year-old. Realists would not begrudge another championship for the great but their expectations are always tempered and tinged with a healthy dose of skepticism.
In the end, it proved to be too much even for the tennis machine. The cracks and the strain were visible towards the end of the fourth set with Roger dropping his serve in the final game to lose the set without taking it into another nail-biting tie-breaker.
But he had done enough to revive Wimbledon out of its stupor.
Britain’s favourite son, Andy Murray, might clinch yet another title on the hallowed grass of the All-England Championship.
But for many, this Wimbledon is simply to be Federer’s thing of beauty—forever.