At some time or another every player chokes. Everyone in the game knows what choking is when used as a sporting term. It means your arm goes stiff as a board, your legs wobble and your stomach churns. Big strong players are reduced to a muddle of uncertainty and incompetence. Matches that should be won are irretrievably lost. The agony is unbearable.
Emotions such as these will affect many matches at the US Open over the next two weeks and will, without doubt, decide the outcome of some, even in the later rounds – where champions live, as we say at Tennis Channel. A form of choke nearly interrupted Andy Murray’s historic march to his 2013 Wimbledon triumph. When serving for the title against Novak Djokovic, and needing to get out of break point, Murray looked down at his arm and discovered it was shaking. It took amazing willpower for him to somehow win the next three points and write himself into the history books.
Rod Laver, one of Murray’s most illustrious predecessors as Wimbledon champion, would have recognized what Murray was going through. “We all choke,” Laver told me many years ago. “I choke. The answer is to recognize the fact and not panic. Just give the ball a bit of a nudge.”
A nudge, in Laver parlance, meant giving the ball a mighty great whack with that Pop-Eye left arm of his. Opponents were left blinking at the result.
Laver was succinct in his explanation of what to do but for many champions it has never been that easy. Forty eight years ago as Open Tennis was introduced to the game, Virginia Wade became the unexpected champion of the newly styled US Open when it was played on grass at Forest Hills. Most surprisingly the British player beat the defending champion, Billie Jean King, 6-4, 6-2 in the final.
A few months later I sat down with Virginia for a piece I wrote for the London Evening News. I came across it a few days ago in my cuttings file and what she told me offers one of the more detailed explanations of how to deal with an explosive temperament I have ever seen. And it remains relevant for any player grappling with the same problems today. No, Virginia Wade was not a female Nick Kyrgios but he would do well to read what follows.
To give you a gist of Miss Wade’s reputation, the large headline on my piece read: “The Time-Bomb Tennis Star!” Yes, despite the fact that Virginia was the incredibly well-educated and well spoken daughter of an Archdeacon, her behavior on court frequently did not suggest as much.
Virginia met her reputation for on-court flare ups and melt downs head on when we talked. “It’s been better since I won Forest Hills last year,” she said. “Winning a major title like that has improved my confidence. Before if I had one bad match it used to worry me so much I usually played badly in the next one as well. But this temperament thing is something else.”
Always poised and at ease, as she remains to this day, Virginia laughed. “I am beginning to resign myself to the fact that I have a reputation for being temperamental on court. There is nothing much I can do about it because even when I don’t blow up, people still say, ‘Oh, didn’t she behave well!’ as if it was something extraordinary.”
“Well, it might have been extraordinary in the past but it is less so now. But it still happens sometimes because I still get nervous. And that’s what it’s all about really – nerves.
“Suddenly, for no particular reason, I get that awful feeling when your legs turn to jelly and the only way I can pull myself out of it, is to bang my racket or scream or do something stupid like that. It’s a form of release.”
We were talking at the Monte Carlo Country Club, high up on the terrace while below us a player who really knew how to blow a gasket – Pancho Gonzalez – was prowling around, growling to himself as if his world still depended on a first serve for survival.
Virginia seemed to sympathize. “One is so vulnerable in some ways. Mentally vulnerable, I mean. The most innocent remarks from well-meaning people before a big match can be disastrous. You’re about to play Ann (Jones) and someone comes up and asks how you did against her the last time and you happen to have lost and that starts it. Having successfully managed to put it out of your mind, you start remembering all the mistakes and your nerves just go to shreds. That’s why I’m inclined to walk away when people do that now. It may be very rude but with a temperament like mine, it’s the only thing to do.”
There will be many players competing at the US Open who will be able to relate to exactly what Virginia was talking about. Hitting the right ball over the net at the right speed in the right direction is only part of what a champion requires to succeed. It’s all linked to emotion and intellect and some find the whole deal a lot easier than others.
The extent to which Virginia Wade took control of her temperament became clear to us in 1977 when, after a disastrous run of nerve-racked defeats at Wimbledon – not unlike what Amelia Mauresmo went through at Roland Garros in later years – Virginia marched into her press conference after winning her first round match and stated with an air of absolute certitude, “I am going to win the title this year. I have to. The Queen’s coming.”
She was, indeed. Her Majesty made a rare appearance on the Centre Court because it was Wimbledon’s Centenary Year and the player she gave the trophy to was – Virginia Wade. There had been signs of nerves in the final against Betty Stove but she kept them under control because, in her mind, she had to. The Queen was there.
That kind of incentive may not be relevant today but it does offer an example of how the growing maturity which comes from experience enables a player to conquer the near paralysis of nerves. It can be done. Just remember to give the ball a bit of a nudge.