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Coping under pressure: how to play your best tennis when it really matters?
Saturday, 07/08/2017
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If you’re looking for a definition for the word ‘choker’ then your best starting point would be Jean Van De Velde’s final hole at the 1999 British Open. If you have forgotten, or indeed have never even heard of it, I’ll set the scene for you. But do go and YouTube it as well to see it in its full glory.
It’s the 72nd and final hole of the 1999 British Open and Frenchman Jean Van De Velde is standing on the tee needing just a double bogey to win the first major of what has been a rather ordinary career. He’s played beautifully all weekend and just needs a decent drive to get him into position for his approach. With a driver in hand, rather than the more sensible option of an iron or fairway wood, he proceeded to only just miss the famous Carnoustie burn (small stream) to the right and give himself a very tricky second shot. Rather than playing out safely and giving himself a good crack at the green with his third shot, he went straight for the green and pulled his ball right where it hit the grandstand and bounced back 50 yards into knee-deep rough. He mishit his third shot and saw it sail into the water before bizarrely removing his shoes and socks to see whether he could play from the shallow water. After deciding against this and taking a drop for a one stroke penalty he then lifted his fifth shot into a greenside bunker before an up and down for a triple bogie and having to settle for a place in a three-way play-off which he proceeded to lose.
That’s not a tennis story, I hear you cry! And you’re right, it’s not. But come on, as an individual sport which also shares the need to close out a tournament or set when big pressure is upon you, it’s a fair comparison. It’s not that there haven’t been similar chokes in the world of tennis, but Van De Velde’s was so monumental due to the event, but also because he had such a large room for error yet still managed to throw it away.

Tennis has, and has had, its fair share of chokers down the years too of course. Davydenko, Safin, Monfils all appeal as names who perhaps had the talent and did occasionally come good, but far more regularly they let the occasion get the better of them when it mattered most. Tim Henman is an interesting one. With umpteen Wimbledon semi-final appearances but zero appearances in the final itself, was Tiger Tim choking each time? Or was he just getting the absolute most out of his ability, which was just not quite enough to win a slam? Whichever of those is correct, there can be no doubt that when he went into those semi-final matches, the weight of the country was upon those modest shoulders and it seemed to tell. I mean, there was even a raised piece of land named after him just yards away from where he was playing. Returning year after year to be beaten at the same stage of a tournament his country so desperately wanted him to win, the poor guy must have experienced the most horrific of night’s sleep before each of them. 

Even Andy Murray, now #1 in the world rankings looked like he may be falling into the choker category for a while, before he sprung into life with that US Open win in 2012 and followed it with a couple of Wimbledon wins and an Olympic Gold. In an interview with Betway Insider, Murray’s former sports psychologist, Roberto Forzoni, confirms that it’s all to do with the mind and specifically the thought process a certain individual undertakes. "Rather than thinking about what you do, you think about the consequence. You look into the ‘what-if’ scenarios. What if I miss? What if I play badly? What is someone going to say?"
He goes on to explain how players returning to attempt a feat they have failed either once or more in the past can play havoc with the mind. This makes sense because as the desire to achieve something becomes greater, so does the pressure one puts on oneself to achieve it. It sounds like this may well have been the case with our Tim for all those years on Centre Court.
We still loved him though, and the good news for Van De Velde is that he forever more has the public’s total sympathy. After all, there’s nothing better than a good loser.