Thursday, January 21, 2010

To Think or Not to Think?

To think or not to think? Federer and Henin do Both

Tennis is a visceral sport, and this is definitely one of the reasons that the sport is so spontaneous, so flowing, and so emotional. There isn’t enough time between strokes to really give a whole lot of deep thought to what is going on out there on a tennis court - players must engage, yes, but their actions must be a product of subconscious calculations rather than pen and pencil geometry.

I’ve always been aware (sometimes painfully) and intrigued by this fact. The fact that in tennis it is better to avoid thought while playing.

But is it really?

In the last two days, as I’ve watched Federer and Henin, two of the most serene and artful players in the world at the moment, I contemplated this issue further.

Can it really be possible that the best players in the world are not thinking at all on the tennis court - on purpose? And if this is the case, then how will they navigate the ever-changing set of circumstances that inevitably occur during each and every match? Don’t calculations and strategies need to be formed regarding sun, wind, the opponents best shots on that given day, the opponents weaknesses on that given day, etc…?

For instance, if Roger Federer wasn’t thinking out there on Rod Laver yesterday, how did he recognize that his unruly adversary, Igor Andreev, needed to be fed (nice play on words, eh?) a steady diet of ground-hugging slice to his backhand side - otherwise he would continue to be hurt by the Russian’s mammoth forehand?

The fact of the matter is that Roger was thinking out there. There has to be a certain degree of strategic decision making on the court, and this is where the best players separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

The best players know how to think and not think at the same time.

Take Justine Henin last night, as she played a crucial point late in the second set against Elena Dementieva. The Russian had seized the advantage in the point and worked her way into the net while Henin was on the defensive. As Dementieva punched a volley to Henin’s backhand (probably the wrong move) Henin had very little time to react to the shot. Instead of putting that classic follow-through on her backhand, Henin stopped her follow-through almost immediately after contact and punched a flat ball down the line for a winner.

This is a classic example of thinking and not thinking at the same time. Henin just instinctively knew that the full follow-through was either too difficult to execute or would have caused her to push the ball long. She also know that rushing her shot was more important than setting up and hitting it with more pace, because taking time away from Dementieva while she was at the net in an offensive position gave her the best chance for the point.

All this thinking was done in the split second that it took for the play to occur - and all of it was done instinctively, subconsciously, and most importantly, decisively.

All of the players on tour must think without thinking. It is the essence of the sport, and it is implicit in every shot.

While another player may have just teed off on the backhand and sailed it wide, Henin’s central processing unit allowed her to effectively make the decision and it also allowed her to keep the decision separate from her stroke production - that always needs to be thoughtless.

While another player may have successfully determined the proper strategy to employ against Andreev’s massive forehand, Federer’s central processing unit allowed him to do so without letting the decision weigh down his stroke production.

It isn’t easy to think without thinking, but the great ones, as always, find a way.

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