If you’ve watched any amount of tennis, or even if it happens to be the first time you’re either watching or playing some things immediately become apparent. How fast the players move and hit the ball, for one (you miss something watching on television). The dimensions of the court, for another. The interplay between doubles partners. The crowd effect. All of these things have an effect on you as you pay attention to the grand scheme of things. But if you really concentrate on a player, on his or her movements and motions, you’ll notice something else, and that’s that tennis players are really obsessive-compulsive.
It manifests itself in different ways for different players. Most players talk to themselves in some capacity. Whether a gentle mumbling to coax themselves through an issue that their opponent has uncovered, a triumphant yell after a great point, simply amusing themselves while enduring the crushing loneliness of the court, or even nonverbally communicating with their coaches and families, look closely and you’ll see that it’s likely your player is quite self-conversant, giving voice to the thoughts whizzing around in his or her head.
Then there are the compulsions. These quirks of psychology have taken many forms over the years, and usually come to the forefront if a player happens to be really good. Rafael Nadal has a lot of them. He lines his beverages and supplements up in a specific way so as to be easily accessible over the course of the match. He has an army of towels to keep him company on changeovers that he has to personally deliver to the ballboys and ballgirls when walking back out to play. And finally, most notably, he sort of runs his fingers through his hair over his ears to get it out of the way, intermittently squeezing his nose and picking the wedgie out of his shorts as he prepares to serve. It’s nothing short of spectacular. John McEnroe was similarly compulsive in his pre-serve stance and routine; Andy Roddick would bounce the ball several times while fixing his shirt about the shoulders and wiggling his wrist so as to get his bracelet back into place.
Others are subtler. Did you ever notice how players often bounce the ball very purposefully before serving? That isn’t an accident. The number of times it’s done and the way in which it’s done are both really important to both compulsions and genuine concerns about rhythm. And what about the ladies? Those grunts that have made Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova so famous (or infamous, for that matter, though to be fair, men like Gustavo Kuerten had world-class grunting capabilities as well) are usually about nothing more than rhythm, finding your stroke, and keeping it that way.
Tennis is a wonderful game and becomes even more so the more that you observe it. The physical side is always on display, the mental side is what you have to look a little under the surface for. With a little bit of careful observation, you can see what makes the players tick (and occasionally tic), and how much mental effort goes into the side of tennis that you simply have to play to understand. It can be solitary and taxing on a tennis court, where the only people around you are at best impartial to your fate (line judges and umpires) and at worst, out for your balls, so to speak. Compulsions and routines are all that stand between victory and a psychological breakdown.