David Worboys – It’s all in the mind

Will there be a time when the greatest tennis player will be beaten by a robot?

Sports psychologists and commentators are fond of saying that games and matches are won or lost in the mind. This must apply more to an individual contest than a team one because in the latter each mindset is affected by team-mates. It is relevant to athletics, boxing and, of course, tennis.

There is only a slight difference in the physical capabilities of the top players. Some may be gifted with a slightly better stroke than another, whether forward or backhand, serve or volley, drop-shot or lob, and also reach or speed around the court.

An inspired player can raise his game to a new level, whereas an all-time-great will occasionally commit the most basic errors. This can be the result of lapse in concentration, frustration at a decline in level of play, anger at a decision – or nervous tension. He may be unable to perform as he is capable of doing.

The question is how frequently and in what circumstances of pressure (“the big points”) will this happen. The most successful players use their minds consistently to maximise their physical and technical capabilities.

However great the condition of mind and body, there is always the spectre of recurring or serious injuries. This is the main reason why the most successful players are not necessarily the greatest ones. In men’s tennis, there can be little doubt that more grand slams could and should have been achieved by certain such players. Predominantly among these are Rafael Nadal (who won 22), Andy Murray (three) and Juan-Martin del Potro (just one).

On Saturday, 01 June, Novak Djokovic, aged 37, played a third round match against Lorenzo Musetti (aged 22) in the French Open. The match went to five sets and lasted 4 hours 30 minutes. It finished at 3am on Sunday morning, the latest ever finish at Roland Garros. Djokovic won it after being 1-2 sets down. He won the last set 6-0.

It seemed unlikely that he would be physically fit to continue in the tournament. But nobody in any sport has a greater mental strength than Djokovic.

The next day (Monday), in the fourth round, he was 1-2 sets down and 4-5 and 0-30 down in the fourth set on the service of Francisco Cerundolo, (12 years his junior) He was also troubled by an injured knee.

And he won in 5 sets, again in 4hrs 30.

The following day, a scan revealed a tear in the medial meniscus of his right knee, which forced him to withdraw from the tournament. Thus the most successful payer in the history of men’s tennis was denied a quite likely fourth French and twenty-fifth grand slam title.

The future advances in Artificial Intelligence seem unlimited. But it’s difficult to imagine a robot defeating a fully fit Djokovic at the top level. Physically it may be indestructible but it lacks a mind.

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Written by

David Worboys

Offering a unique insight into everything from politics to food to sport, David is one of the Euro Weekly News´ most popular columnists.