The recently concluded US Open has proved once again the importance of mental toughness in the sport. From a top 20 journeyman who seemed destined to remain forever in the shadows of Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka has stepped out to create his own place among's tennis' big guns.
And Angelique Kerber has proved that hard work and determination coupled with self-belief can take you much further than talent alone. Both players have stressed about how important the journey from self-doubt to self-belief has been.
Also Read: Top 10 Moments of Angelique Kerber in 2016!
Badri Narayanan is one of the leading mental conditioning coaches in the world today. Having worked with several athletes across various sports, we spoke to Badri about what exactly mental conditioning is and how the field have evolved in recent years as well as his views on the tennis universe.
Question - Tennis has always been as much a mental sport as it has been a physical one. But while physical fitness has been receiving a lot of attention for decades now, the mental conditioning has gained in importance only recently. What do you attribute the same to?
Badri - The physical part is visible and solid while the mental part is something internal and only the player knows. If you look at men's/women's tennis, what separates the top 10 from the rest of the field is the mental aspect of the game.
Anybody can hit the ball really well - be it the forehand or the backhand or the serve. What separates the best from the rest is the mental intent behind the shot. Is it coming from playing to win or hoping the ball doesn't go or out of nerves/anxiety you name it. It has gained more visibility and importance now because players have realized that it is vital to work on their mental muscles to get the edge.
Question - How easy or difficult is it to start working on your mental toughness when someone is already in the midst of their playing careers?
Badri - It is difficult no doubt but it has to be done for a player to fulfil his true potential . It is vital for a player to realize that it is the mental muscle development that is going to determine if he is going to be good or great.
My role is to create an environment for the player to get working on the mental aspect in an open and curious manner. I also help the player to be in the moment and become free of past or conditioned responses. Once the obstacles are removed , then it becomes a lot more easier and fun for the player to attain peak performance.
Question - While everyone understands mental conditioning, what are some of the important concepts that you could talk about that the common sports fan or person could relate to?
Badri - It applies to everyone, be it at a desk job or the CEO of a corporation or weekend warriors. The most important concept is becoming free of thoughts and being in the moment. The other important aspect is nonjudgement and acceptance of oneself. The other concept is of gratitude for whatever you are doing in life. These, when imbibed in oneself, will play a key role towards excellence.
Question - This year has been a very interesting one on the WTA. Serena Williams has struggled to replicate her success and has now been supplanted by Angelique Kerber in the rankings. Can you talk about what you see as the difference in their mental make-up this year?
Badri - Serena is 35 years old and she plays every match like her last match and is the mentally toughest player out there. The wear and tear of the success of Serena for so many years and keeping her mind fresh is itself remarkable. She is a complete champion.
Kerber has worked hard on her fitness and mental toughness. She no longer goes down on herself when she is not playing well. She is much calmer and relaxed and most importantly she is extremely fit. That gives her a lot of confidence.
Question - Stan Wawrinka is a prime example of how a player can bloom in their late 20s. How do you judge the difference in his mental make-up now as compared to a few years ago when he was just another dangerous floater?
Badri - He is a big match player as mentioned by Novak Djokovic. He wants to do well on the big stage. Now when he goes into matches, he believes he can win no matter who is on the other side. He trusts his shots, his fitness and his power.
He has a razor-sharp focus in key moments and backs himself. He reflects positive body language most of the time and has a plan out there while playing. He looks forward to pressure and is courageous enough to face it.
Question - In recent years, several women who achieved a breakthrough by going deep at Slams or winning a Slam have failed to live up to the expectations in subsequent majors. What specific reason do you attribute this to?
Badri - It comes down to mental discipline and not getting lost in the rewards of success. When you have success, that is when one needs to remember that now I got to work even harder and it’s a tremendous responsibility and a privilege. It’s also about managing expectations and not letting the external circumstances get to your head.
Question - Among the younger lot of players, who has impressed you when it comes to mental toughness?
Badri - Among the men, I like Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev. I am also impressed with Taylor Fritz who can go a long way in the years to come.
Question - Which players from the current lot do you think would have achieved much more success if they had worked more on their mental conditioning?
Badri - Grigor Dimitrov for sure along with Thomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would have achieved much more.
Question - For some players like Federer or the Williams sisters, mental toughness seems to come more naturally rather than for some others who work with mental conditioning coaches. Is mental toughness something one is born with or something that one can acquire?
Badri - Like I said earlier, I call it mental muscles because I believe that it can be developed. Talent is inborn for sure but mindset and fitness can be developed. It’s about being fiercely committed to mental toughness.
Question - Finally, if there was one player from the past and one from the present who you would love to work with, who would that be?
Badri - I would have loved to have worked with Marat Safin/Marcelo Rios and Grigor Dimitrov in the present for sure.