Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

October 3, 2011

The Ultimate Head Game

Sports Illustrated's S.L Price discusses the mental makeup of a tennis champion.

Michael Gluckstadt

If 90 percent of baseball is half-mental, as Yogi Berra famously quipped, what percentage of tennis is? In a sport in which the (arguably, if you insist) greatest player to ever play the game can double-fault away his ticket to the US Open final, or where entire careers at the highest level are dictated by mental health, there is much more happening in the cerebral cortex than there is on the court.

Scott (S.L.) Price. Photo by Simon Bruty.
"Federer might be the most aesthetically pleasing player ever, and I don't think his game would be any more beautiful if he played with a wooden racket."

Scott (S.L.) Price. Photo by Simon Bruty.

The mental aspect of the game, which is to say, the whole game, is the chief reason why tennis's true champions could have succeeded in any era, according to Sports Illustrated's S.L Price. "Equipment, styles, accepted fitness levels can all change," he tells Gelf. "The champion's recipe hasn't yet—work ethic, talent, and the ability to rise and fight under the toughest mental conditions." Since joining SI in 1994, Price has dedicated a large portion of his writing in the magazine to tennis and its most memorable personalities, as the sport has eased in and out of the national sports conversation. He's written dozens of tennis features including a recent one on Novak Djokovic and earlier pieces on tennis greats Pancho Gonzalez and Boris Becker.


In the following interview, which was conducted over email and condensed for clarity, Price tells Gelf about some of the best tennis he's ever seen, whether the formation of a player's union is likely, and which diminutive Moroccan-born pro he most plays like.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think we're living in the golden age of men's tennis?

S.L. Price: Yes, it's a golden age. Parts of that Nadal-Djokovic final in New York were a level of tennis I hadn't seen before.

Gelf Magazine: How do you think today's big three— Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic—would've fared in different eras? Say, Borg-McEnroe, Lendl-Becker, Agassi-Sampras.

S.L. Price: Equipment, styles, accepted fitness levels can all change. The champion's recipe hasn't yet. Work ethic, talent, the ability to rise and fight under the toughest mental conditions: All three men would've fared well in any era. Just as Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Connors, Borg, Sampras, Agassi, Becker, etc. would've fared well in any era. These people are special. They're different. That's why they are paid so well, and why we can't help but watch them. They aren't like you and I—not when it comes to competition—and they would've found a way to be great in any decade.

Gelf Magazine: Does the lack of a dominant American player (at least on the men's side) detract from the national interest in the sport?

S.L. Price: Sure, a great American male would make a big difference. At the same time, I felt no diminution of interest in Ashe Stadium when Djokovic took down Federer in five in the semis this year, nor during that Nadal-Djoko final. The personalities and characters in these top four men emerge no matter how thick the accent. And people's mixed feelings about Serena render the American question, at least in her case, almost moot.

Gelf Magazine: Are the distinctions between the men's and women's games breaking down? Are the women playing more like the men?

S.L. Price: Not really. Not if Wozniacki is your No. 1. The physicality of the men's game is more punishing than ever, especially over five sets. The women are hitting harder, sure, but the distinction between the two remains pretty vivid.

Gelf Magazine: There seems to be some momentum building towards the idea of a players' union in tennis. Do you think it's feasible, and what would it mean for the ATP and WTA?

S.L. Price: I don't think there will be a players' union. There are too many divergent needs among the many different tiers of players, not to mention the players' past history of fiery rhetoric/limp action on the need for one. That will make the issue fade away. I can see the ITF—and the Grand Slams—simply waiting out the players until the current wave of dissatisfaction and bad publicity dissipates. They feel they are bigger than the players—and until the very top players are willing to boycott the majors, the majors will make a few token concessions while continuing to pay and schedule how they wish.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think doping is a major issue in the sport?

S.L. Price: I have no idea. Tennis seems ideal for doping because recovery is so essential, especially at the Grand Slams. And if the past two decades have taught us anything, it's to never to be surprised when any star, and any sport, turns up dirty.

Gelf Magazine: Our other two Varsity Letters speakers have taken opposite viewpoints on racket technology in the pages of the Atlantic. What's your take?

S.L. Price: I'm not generally disturbed by the advances in racket and string technology. Many consider Federer the most aesthetically pleasing player ever, and I don't think his game would be any more beautiful if he played with a wooden racket. Schiavone remains one of the most inventive players, and she would be fun to watch if she were wielding a piece of twisted steel. In other words, I don't think the changes in equipment have blunted the players' creativity or somehow inhibited the game as a showcase for personality. The best players always adapt. Greatness shines through.

Gelf Magazine: You've written about Pancho Gonzalez for SI. Why do tennis players tend to have such outsize personalities?

S.L. Price: I think there's something about tennis that—unlike, say, golf, which almost demands a steady tamping down of personality—actually rewards the mercurial and the moody, the explosion of ego. I don't trust what we thought we saw in "boring" stars like in Borg, Edberg, and certainly not Sampras; Bjorn's personal meltdown post-career proves that there was plenty of personality in there. Lindsay Davenport, who many outside the sport would probably term "vanilla," is actually one of the most intriguing characters I've ever met. Tennis players can't help themselves; there's something in the game that pushes them to reveal themselves. Only one sport—boxing—does it better.

Gelf Magazine: Interesting that you make the connection, as so many do, between tennis and boxing. What qualities do you think the sports share?

S.L. Price: Both have personalities in full view, standing near naked and trying to exert their will on the opponent. All sports are boxing at different levels of remove. Tennis comes closer than most outsiders think.

Gelf Magazine: Do you play at all? Do you think a writer who plays tennis has a better understanding of the game?

S.L. Price: Yes and yes.

Gelf Magazine: Which pro's game does yours most resemble?

S.L. Price: In my head? Hicham Arazi. In reality? Roscoe Tanner on a heroin binge.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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