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.
What he said:
"I think everyone’s light turns on at their own time. I’m starting to feel like mine is turning on."
Donald Young, once labelled the ‘next big thing’ of American tennis, feels that he’s a late bloomer, much like Mardy Fish. Young is 22 and was the youngest ever junior Grand Slam winner at 15—before Bernard Tomic—winning the Australian Open in 2005. Young beat Lukas Lacko in straight sets to make it to the second round of the US Open.
What he really meant:
“I need more electricity. Can I find it here at the US Open?”
What he definitely didn’t:
“Until now, I was a light bulb without a filament.Cold.Dead.”
“You haven’t analysed the men’s draw for the US Open. Today’s the 27th and the tournament begins on the 29th.” pestered Otto.
“I know. I’ve just been a little wrapped up in other things.” I reply, tiredly.
“But you have to do the men’s draw. That’s like manna for tennis followers.” insists Otto.
“Oh, I’m sure, they are multiple draw analyses floating around the internet. The smart ones can visit USOpen.org and figure it out themselves.” I attempt to fob off my companion.
“But that’s not the point, is it? It’s good for you too. You can’t follow the US Open without delving into the draw. It’s like going into a dark night without a torch.” Otto is a member of the local debate club.
Even as the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters took off on Sunday, the 10th of April, 2011, there was more tennis happening across the world.
In Houston, the home crowd had a lot to cheer for when local hero, Ryan Sweeting defeated Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-6 (3) to clinch his first ATP tour title at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships. For Nishikori, it was a disappointing end to a great run that could have provided some relief to his suffering country.
Our beloved tennis players are eminently quotable. They can rise to the occasion and serve up wonderful sound bytes – some terrific , some terrible – when accosted at their press conferences and when grilled at interviews.
A sampling from the articulate geniuses.
The hiring of Paul Annacone as coach appears a masterstroke in hindsight. Federer’s results and ranking since have shown an upward trajectory.
He has reached two consecutive finals: The Rogers Cup and Cincinatti Masters, winning the latter.
A new resilience and a willingness to slug it out with the best of them exemplify Federer’s ascendant star. He expects no easy wins and is willing to stay the course. This was so not the case earlier when Federer’s opponents were overawed by his reputation and gifted away easy victories.
The mortality of Federer has unlocked a new stream of consciousness in his opponents that there is life in professional tennis despite his looming presence.
As to how Annacone has added luster to Federer’s glory, the answer is still in the realm of speculation.
Roger, what is it? Is it validation? Is it motivation? Is it technical? Or is he a trophy coach?
Either way, Annacone is there to egg Federer on to his sixth US Open title.