If you watched the Australian Open you were witness to some incredible tennis but also some monumental upsets.
Who would have picked Jiri Lehecka to knock out number 11 seed Cam Norrie in the third round and then follow it up by beating tnumber 6 seed in Felix Auger-Alassime the very next round.
Whilst I am sure that every Aussie wanted to see Alexei Popyrin play well even the most patriotic of fans would agree that his win against Taylor Fritz was against the odds. It was a similar story in the ladies draw with wins from Kim Birrell over number 31 seed Kaia Kanepi, Marketa Vondrousova against number 2 seed Ons Jabeur and Lin Zhu defeating number 6 seed Maria Sakkari.
These results along with countless others not only during the AO but throughout the course of the year on the regular tours got me asking the question: in this age where there is so much information available with technology and the internet why is still so hard to declare a winner prior to the match.
Video footage of a player’s strokes, head-to-head records, scouting, strengths and weaknesses analysed to within an inch of its life, recent form, record on a particular surface, injury history and enough data to fill several computers and we as coaches, commentators and tennis followers will still get it wrong.
Whilst technology and data are great resources the one opponent, they cannot accurately analyse is the unknown opponent. So, who is the unknown opponent? The unknown opponent is the one that players actually battle against themselves even before stepping onto the court to face the opponent on the other side of the net.
There are many factors that go into making a player perform at their peak on any given occasion. Things such as: how they performed in training, recent form, how they feel physically, have they recovered from a previous match, how do they feel mentally about the upcoming challenge and history against an opponent all contribute to a player’s all important mind set.
Being in a positive frame of mind before stepping out on court can play a huge part in the outcome of the match whilst the opposite is also true.
Whilst these factors are more tangible and driven by fact there are also the intangibles which we, the outsider do not know even exist but are the unknown opponents greatest strengths and have the ability to bring us down before we even toss the coin.
Things that are super important to a tennis player like competitiveness are almost impossible to measure. How can you measure someone’s love of the contest, the heart to fight for every point and to run for every last ball when all seems lost? I would argue that hunger and desire are key elements in a player’s ability to win matches but there is no chart for that!
How much sleep did the player get last night? Did the kids keep them up as they are teething? Did their partner need help with a household emergency? Do they have a sick relative? Is the player or their partner homesick? Will they receive physical or psychological abuse if they lose? Are they the sole breadwinner for the extended family? Can they afford to keep travelling if the lose this week?
While undoubtedly there are countless more, these are just a few examples of things that can have an impact on a players performance. Can you imagine being a 17 year old who is paying the mortgage, paying for mum and dad to travel the world with them and knows they will be victim of some form of abuse if they lose. That is a huge amount of pressure for anyone to deal with but it is something that we would never know is happening.
These themes no doubt paint a picture of negativity and could to a certain extent explain the reasons for some upsets the opposite can also be true.
Playing well without getting the results, being fitter than ever before, history against a certain opponent and knowing you have performed well at a certain venue can all add up to a positive mind set before going into battle. These elements can also be clear to see but what about the unknown?
The exhilaration of a new relationship can have you on cloud nine where all you think are positive thoughts and nothing seems to bother you. Having a child can make you feel that you are the luckiest person in the world and you radiate happiness everywhere you go. Making main draws, going deep, winning tournaments and securing your family’s financial future can also give you the feeling of freedom and enables you to play with a sense of calmness and go for your strokes more.
Considering the longevity of some of our greats such as Roger, Rafa, Novak and Serena and knowing that at some stage of their careers that they would have been competing against their own unknown opponent gives further reason for us to celebrate and appreciate their greatness. On the other side of the coin, next time we are watching an upset unfold in front of us instead of asking why the higher ranked player is not performing maybe we can ponder who is the unknown opponent they are up against.