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What makes a player great: their physical prowess or their mental fortitude?

It’s an age-old question that is endlessly debated by sports fans all over the world.

There’s an expression that goes: genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. This could relate to inspiration as mental (1%) and perspiration as physical (99%), implying that success comes from hard work, not wishful thinking. I.E. It’s not about simply about ideas, it’s about making them happen. There’s another expression that goes: fitness is 1% physical, 99% mental. This seems to imply the opposite. If the outcome is already decided in your mind, your body will do what it needs to achieve that outcome. In the third and final instalment of our 3-part Mental Vs Physical series, we compare both the mental and physical and answer the question: which wins out?

The Argument for the Mental

In the world of men’s tennis, there are plenty of examples of talented players who never quite achieved great success. Miloslav Mecir, Thomas Enqvist, Marcelo Rios, Mark Phillapousis, David Ferrer, the list goes on.

The best modern example is perhaps David Nalbandian. Considered one of the most talented players to have never won a Grand Slam, Nalbandian had all the shots but injuries, lack of consistency and particularly a poor mental temperament prevented him from having any major success. While he had a famous run at 2007 Madrid Masters, beating the big 3 (Nadal, Djokovic and Federer) in successive matches to win the title, the fact that he only won 11 ATP titles in his entire career speaks volumes about his mental fragility.

Then there are the players that overachieved. That won a grand slam no one expected them to. Players like Petr Korda (AO 1998), Thomas Johanssen (AO 2002), Albert Costa (FO 2002) and Gaston Gaudio (FO 2004) are the best examples. In each of these finals, the winning player was the massive underdog and prevailed, their mental strength held up while their favoured opponents basically choked.

Perhaps the biggest mental choke of all time occurred at the 2004 French Open final. It was an all-Argentinian affair and Guillermo Coria was the heavy favourite to beat countryman, Gaston Gaudio. Taking the first set to love and winning the second set 6-3, Coria seemed to have one hand on La Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Then, suddenly, at 4-3, in the third set, there was a turning point. Spurred on by a huge Mexican wave from the restless French crowd that stopped play for a number of minutes, Gaudio started to relax. Coria, on the other hand, unravelled, mentally, getting broken at 4-4 after being 40-15 up to eventually lose the third set. He then lost the fourth set comfortably 6-1, succumbing to a sudden onset of cramping and barely putting up a fight. After an extended injury break, Coria would come out re-energised and take a 4-2 lead in the fifth and even have 2 match points on serve at 6-5. But it was too little, too late. Gaudio had worked his way back into the match and wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip him by, taking the match 8-6 in the fifth set. A famous victory and a clear case of one player crumbling, mentally, while the other rising to the occasion, against all odds. After that, Coria was never the same again, as injuries and a lack of confidence haunted him for the rest of his career, retiring in 2009 at the tender age of 27. In summary, when looking at these talented underachievers vs the seize-the-moment overachievers, there is one common thread: mental strength (or lack thereof).

Argument for the Physical

Nearly every great player in history is famous for a particular physical strength or weapon. Whether it was Pistol Pete’s serve, Rafa’s forehand whip or Novak’s precision return, these players centred their games around these weapons, winning a lot of matches because of them. These shots were also feared by their opponents.

As such, a player’s physical strengths can carry a two-fold effect. That is, a player’s weapons can be so potent as to create doubts in their opponent’s mind before they’ve even stepped on court.

Therefore, the mark of a great player is not only their physical strengths but also being aware of their opponent's fear of their weapons. This lends itself to the notion that physical strength is a two-way street. Both how well a player’s weapons are working for them and how they affect their opponent’s game. One of the best examples of a player with fear-inducing physical strengths is Ivan Lendl. The Father of modern tennis, Lendl’s game was built around powerful groundstrokes, hit with heavy topspin. Such was his indomitable physical presence, that Lendl dominated men’s tennis for the better part of 10 years, racking up a 90% winning record in ‘82, ‘85, ‘86, ‘87 and ‘89. No player has ever topped that.

When Lendl was in full flight, not many could get through him.

Then there are those players with obvious physical limitations to their game. Limitations that inhibited them from achieving success at the top level. Perhaps the best example of a player like this is ex-player and current U.S. Open commentator, Brad Gilbert. While still managing to achieve good results against top 10 players, he never really got close to winning a Grand Slam. In his now-famous book, Winning Ugly, Gilbert talks about how he managed to beat some of the world’s best players despite a game once described as ‘like a caveman who found a tennis racquet.’ Gilbert notched up wins over such greats as John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. However, there was one player who Gilbert could never get past: Ivan Lendl.

In 16 meetings, Gilbert could not manage one win. Lendl won 8 Grand Slams and Gilbert only never made it past the quarter-finals. Not only that, Gilbert didn’t have favourable head-to-head records against most of his major rivals, including a dismal 1-13 record against McEnroe and 4-15 record against Stefan Edberg. He simply did not possess the same physical gifts as the all-time greats and indeed a lot of players on tour. Another great example is Michael Chang, a player who was a fierce competitor but had no real weapons. Despite winning the French Open (the youngest man ever to do so), Chang could never quite match that remarkable feat, losing to Muster at the French in ‘95, Becker at the AO in ‘96 and Ivan Lendl at the US, the same year. A large reason behind this is his counterpunching game simply didn’t stack up against the heavier hitters. He was one of the biggest fighters on the tour, which got him to a number of finals, but that alone often wasn’t enough. Both of these examples highlights the undeniable fact that, lacking a weapon or physical presence on court can be a major drawback at the highest level, no matter how mentally strong a player is.

And the winner is….

The only clear argument that comes out of this debate is you can’t have one, without the other.

Bit of a cop out, I know, but it’s true. Someone might have the strongest mental game going around, but if he or she doesn’t have the physical capabilities to back it up, it will be difficult to achieve success. The reverse is also equally true. The caveat to success is this: You need to have a strong enough game to get on tour. Without that, mental strength means nothing. But, once you are there, what separates the best from the rest is all mental. The main difference between the top 10 and the rest of the top 100 in the world is in their mental fortitude. Mental strength can come from a physical advantage, (E.G. Lendl’s belief that his game held up better than his opponent’s) and, conversely, physical strength can come from mental strength (E.G. Gaudio finding a physical boost to keep fighting from a crowd intervention). The truth is, the mental and the physical go hand in hand.

One is not more important than the other.


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