Mere talent is not enough for excelling in any field, leave alone sports. However, if you are talented enough, no doubt, it will give you an edge over others. On the other hand, riding on mental toughness alone – there are a few individuals who dared to usurp the accomplishments of the talented lots. Take for instance – “The Waugh brothers” in cricket. It does not require an expert in the game to tell which one of the two brothers is more gifted as a batsman.
The qualities of the younger twin (Mark) leave a gap equivalent to that of a light year between him and his elder sibling (Steve). But the statistics, at the end of the day, project an entirely a different picture. It was in fact, the lesser talented Steve, who scored over Mark in terms of numbers. Be it the number of runs scored or centuries amassed, the former Australian captain is way ahead of his richly talented younger brother. If you have followed them closely, you would have understood that the only thing which separated the two was the mental toughness – an “IN” thing which was lacking in Mark whereas the same was found in abundance with Steve.
The importance of being mentally tough can be better explained by studying the exploits of a player from another sport on whom this article is being penned. Everyone was aware of the potential of Novak Djokovic, as a tennis player right from day one. He was regarded as the next big thing five years back itself, even when Federer was in full flow. But yet, his attitude and temperament let him down many a times and so, he had been losing some matches which he should have won rather easily. He hardly used to lay his focus on the game and was often criticized for his chest pumping and other unwanted antics. He fell short of self-belief and so was unable to convert any of his good starts to victories. On the whole, though he had enough abilities, he had not been tough mentally.
For the current world No.2 Serb, the turning point of his life was definitely the 2010 US open, which inculcated in him the self belief and showed him what difference it can make if one is strong mentally. In one of the biggest stages in tennis, contesting in the US open semifinal against arguably the greatest player of all times – Roger Federer, he fought back from the brink to seal his place in the final, after fighting off a match point. It was then, when he groomed into a player of strong mind and became almost an immovable object.
In the recently concluded Shanghai open final against Andy Murray, we saw a Djokovic of two different kinds. He tapped his racquet, gently applauding his opponent for the latter’s effort (as he does so many times nowadays in almost all the tennis matches he plays) and also slammed his racquet into the ground innumerable times, leaving it to attain its worst possible shape. From a healthy state of 40-0 on serve, he conceded a break to Andy in the first set which resulted in him to vent his anger on the racquet.
We could sense the bad mood in which he was in at the end of the first set. But, like I said, he also appreciated his adversary for playing a backhand cross-court drop volley out of nowhere. This act of Djockovic clearly indicated that it did not take long for him to regain his composure. For any tennis player, displaying conniptions has always been a bad signal. How often had we seen Boris Becker going down in matches whenever he was outraged! So was the case with the great Roger Federer, who failed to concentrate in his match against del Potro in the final of US open 2009 once he started arguing with the chair umpire’s decision.
But Nole for the past two and a half years, has been wielding racquet with a different frame of mind, which made him to stage a comeback in many matches from the brink. He saved not one, but five match points to win his Shanghai masters, taking us all to the edge of the seat. The tweener that he executed with perfection, when British No.1 was just two points away from the championship, clearly bespoke the never-say-die attitude which he seems to have mastered most recently. The rally did not end with that tweener, but rather continued for a few more shots. It was then, that the commentators yelled –“Nooo-vak – Djo-ko-vic what are you doing?” in shock. Yes, not only the commentators, but every one of us was left in shock when he scored that point through the backhand drop shot winner. One gutsy fellow, he has become nowadays.
When Novak Djokovic saved a match point, hitting a forehand cross-court return winner in the semifinal of US open 2011 off the service of Roger Federer, the latter described it as a shot in desperation. I felt the Swiss Maestro could have opted for a bit more decent phrase as it was really an unfair statement belittling the fighting spirit of the Serb. Instead, Roger could have patted him on the back for the way he overcame the match point, thereby booking a place in the final. After all, it was not the first time Nole secured victory from the jaws of defeat and so it was not proper for it to be called as an act of desperation.
Nole had always been a shaky starter and that was the reason for him rallying behind in most of the matches against top quality players. When he played Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open final this year, he lost the first set very quickly. Till then, Rafa had a record of never losing a Grand Slam match after winning the first set. Nole had other ideas though, and he went on to win the next two sets quite easily. But Rafa somehow pushed the match to the fifth set by prevailing over the Serb in the fourth. After standing toe to toe with the Spaniard for four sets, normally most of the players would have got nothing left in the tank to vanquish him in the final set. And when it almost looked like Novak was looking at the runners up trophy with a break down, he did the impossible by breaking back the Spanish Armada, eventually defending his championship by winning it for the second straight time.
Another example of the growing mental toughness of Nole was witnessed during his match against Jo Wilfred Tsonga in this year’s quarter final match in French Open. He hardly loses his cool when he faces match points nowadays. So the matches are never going to be over till it is over. That’s what has happened in Roland Garros too. He thwarted the match points against the Frenchmen in the fourth set with some incredible show of tennis and sailed his way to the semifinals in a match which lasted for nearly five hours.
Nole has become a comeback man in tennis. Among his contemporaries, only Nadal looks to be having the same sort of strength as him. Perhaps a bit more of those were seen in Rafa during his heydays than what we have seen in the Serb till now. But Nole, of late, seems to be developing it better, as is evident from some of his recent performances, and perhaps becoming more stoic than the Spaniard in adverse situations. Nole or Nadal – Who is more tough mentally, is the question which I am sure, would be one of the topics of discussion in the upcoming days. No player can claim to be in the comfort zone if he plays against Nole, serving for the match, because you never know what is in store.