1 March 2019

Tough times

At some point everyone, whether a pro or an amateur park player, will play a match while weighed down with troubles or even tragedy. There is no right or wrong way to cope, but there is a way to battle through

It was impossible not to be moved when world no 90 Laslo Djere spoke after his first ATP tournament victory last week. “I lost my mom seven years ago so I want to dedicate this one to her,” he said.  Just as the crowd was applauding, he added:

“And also to my dad. I lost him two months ago. My parents had the biggest impact on me… I hope they’re watching me now.”

Petra KvitovaIt was a moving reminder of how often athletes, like the rest of us, have to carry their troubles on to court. Johanna Konta has had to cope with the suicide of her mental guru, Juan Coto; Petra Kvitova (right) still gets flashbacks about the knife attack that almost destroyed her career and although no one died, Rafa Nadal described in his autobiography, the devastation at losing the crucial emotional stability of his family when his parents divorced. He unravelled physically – knees first – then mentally. When he lost in the fourth round of the French Open in 2009 he said, it “finally pushed me over the edge.” 

Grief had the same effect on Olympic long jump champion, Greg Rutherford who lost his beloved grandfather just before his first Olympics in 2008.

“Qualification went incredibly well, but actually with the stress, the lack of sleep, and everything else that I'd been experiencing, I woke up for the final and - little did I know how bad it was at that time - but I basically contracted tonsillitis, a kidney infection, and bronchitis.”

There is a way back after grief.  

When Leicester City played their first match after the death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in a helicopter crash, striker Jamie Vardy said each one of them wanted to play, so they could "do Srivaddhanaprabha proud on the pitch".   Roger Federer  told CNN, much the same about losing his coach, Peter Carter in 2002. “I hope he would be proud,” he said tearfully this January, 17 years after the loss. Federer turned the “wake up call” into his training schedule and won Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam, the following year. In an even greater show of determination, American basketball player, Isaiah Thomas, led his team to victory in 2017 a grief-fuelled, tour de force performance the day after his sister, Chyna, was killed in a car accident.

Some are humbled by grief. American tennis player Stevie Johnson, whose father died two years ago, has a pre-match routine to get things into perspective. "I tell myself to do things the right way and to treat people with respect. And I remind myself that tennis doesn’t define me.”     

So while no one thing works for everyone, everyone can find something that helps. For Kvitova, her recovery has been down to sheer bloody mindedness – “I will show them” – was her reaction when she heard people say her playing days were over; long hours of gruelling physio and perhaps most of all, gratitude-inspired acceptance.

“I have started to live with my new hand,” she said the year after the attack. “I’ve started to try to like it, to love it and that’s how I am going to take it. It’s my hand and I am just happy that I have all of my fingers.”

How to play through a crisIs

Just as for the pros, "real life" can get in the way of tennis. Here are some thoughts on getting through. We hope they are helpful whether you are the one suffering or the person the other side of the net

  • There are more important things than tennis. If you feel you simply can't play, don't. Let your opponent know in good time. You don't have to give a reason, but players will largely be sympathetic
  • Acknowledge to yourself that you are suffering. Unwelcome job news, bad news about a friend or relative or simply fruatration that you have missed the tax deadline - whatever is on your mind, accept that it may effect your tennis. Depending on the nature of the cirsis, you may be able to use it as motivation - some studies have indicated that comeptitive sport can be a benign way of dealing with feelings of anger. Understanding that and channelling it into your play can be helpful and will help make sure you don't accidentally take it out on your opponent
  • Give youself permission to take time off from your worries. It might be equally helpful to use a match simply to give yourself "time off". Don't feel guilty. Looking after yourself is important
  • Get help... There is good evidence that being active can help with mood and while there is much less evidence that excecise can "cure" serious conditions like depression, many experts will support playing a sport as part of a treatment plan
  • Empathise... Sometimes an opponent's behaviour on court can see inexplicable. Remind yourself that you never know what might be going on in someone's life and try to see things from their perspective

If you want to get on court and enjoy playing, you can search for your local league here

PIC Petra Kvitova by slgckgc, reproduced through CC