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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Tennis


What can you learn from Roger Federer?

Tomaz Mencinger

Roger Federer is the current king of men's tennis. 2005 was an incredible year for him as he entered 15 tournaments and won 11 of them including Wimbledon and US Open for the second consecutive year. His 4 losses came in one quarterfinal, two semifinals and one final.

In 2006 he already won Australian Open and Wimbledon and played in the French Open final.

But how did Roger Federer become such a good player and what are his special abilities or mental traits that make him such a superb player?

If you take a look at his career you'll find that his path to the top was not easy at all:

In 1998 - aged 17 - he entered 4 ATP tournaments and lost 3 times in the first round.

In 1999 he played 21 ATP tournaments and lost 8 times in the first round and 4 times in the second. He won one challenger event in the whole year.

In 2000 - aged 19 - he lost 5 times in a row and later 7 times in row in the first round but started to get higher and higher in the tournaments. All in all he lost 14 times in the first round! Interesting fact - he lost to Michael Chang at Halle on grass in the 3rd round!

In 2001 he finished the year at nr. 12 but still lost 6 times in the first round (or his first match he played since he had a "bye" twice in the first round. That was also the year he won that fantastic match against Pete Sampras in Wimbledon 7:5 in the fifth set.

By 2002 you might think that he has already achieved his mental mastery but he still had some very tough losses:

- against Tommy Haas in Australian Open (R16) 6:8 in the fifth set

- against Davide Sanguientti in the finals if Milan 1:6 in the third

- against Agassi in the finals of Miami - 1:3 in sets (Agassi later commented in his interview that "when Roger Federer learns how to play tennis at this top level we're all in trouble".

- lost in the first round of Wimbledon against Mario Ančič 0:3!

Finished the year at nr. 6.

In 2003 he lost in the finals against Felix Mantilla in Rome 0:3 and 10:12 in the final set tie-break. Lost in the first round of French Open against Luis Horna and then won Wimbledon for the first time!

He lost in the finals of Gstaad just after Wimbledon against Jiri Novak and hadn't lost a final until the masters cup 2005 against Nalbandian. That's an incredible run of 24 consecutive wins in the finals!

So what can we learn from Roger Federer?

First, he had to go through very tough times - he lost 5 and 7 times in a row in the first round in 2000. Many players would make the conclusion that they can't make it, that they are losers and so on. But the past does not define the future unless we decide it to. Roger Federer didn't think that because he lost 14 times in the first round that year he can't make it big on the ATP tour. He practiced harder, smarter, learned his lessons and MOVED ON.

He also lost 2 finals (and later some more) and didn't allow that to become his nightmare scenario. He knew this is just a part of the learning and growing process that every player goes through.

His later achievements reflect his transformation when it comes to finals - 24 consecutive wins in the finals. We've all heard and seen players who get really nervous when it's the finals day. Why? Because of negative thinking. They are thinking what a waste it would be if they lots this final. They really don't want to lose this opportunity.

Roger Federer on the other hand seems to explode in the finals. Last year's US Open against Agassi was a perfect example. Roger didn't play at his best a couple of previous rounds but when he started the match against Agassi he was simply destroying him with aggressive and attacking play.

How does Roger do that?

He is focused on what he wants. He wants to win, he can feel how it would be to win and with that feeling and that positive thinking he generates a lot of energy. He goes for what he wants and doesn't think what he wants to avoid. The only thoughts in his mind are about the winning, the trophy and his feeling about it.

And that is his next special ability - he can enter the zone almost on command. He is the master of the inner game where he plays instinctively, courageously and creatively.

We can easily detect that when we observe how his head remains still after the point of contact. The reason for that is that his mind is still at the point of contact. He is not worried, afraid, doubtful in thinking ahead. He is fully present in that specific moment of striking the ball. And he moves on with his mind and body when the stroke is finished.

The other inner game quality that he possesses is the ability of non-judgment. Roger Federer is not perfect (even though some think so…) and he makes unforced errors too. But you will rarely see him show any emotion about that. He accepts them as a part of the game and remains focused on his goal - what he wants - instead of that he doesn't want - to make mistakes.

Roger Federer had to learn the game the hard way. But he didn't allow the setbacks to define his future. Remember that when you lose a first round match or a final.

He is focused on what he wants and he goes for it. This is very important because we have the ability to control our thinking if we decide to. Focus on what you want.

Roger Federer plays in the state of acceptance. He accepts negative or disturbing events and his own mistakes and limitations as a part of the game and a part of himself. He doesn't judge them and feel bad about them. It would immediately take him out of the zone.

Observe that in him and other tennis players and look for the moments when you experience that. Then build on that until it becomes your second nature. And then you'll be free.

Tomaz Mencinger is a sports consultant and a tennis coach. He teaches tennis players how to apply tennis psychology to make their mind their best ally. More resources at his website

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