Here’s a little fable that played out at the Australian Open this morning. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic was playing Daniil Medvedev, seeded 15. Djokovic was up a break and receiving serve at 5-2.
A beetle on the baseline caught Djokovic’s attention. He bent over and flicked it with his racquet a couple of times, trying to move it off the court. Then he tried picking it up while a ballboy stood a few feet away. Unsuccessful, he finally stepped back to let the ballboy take over.
The ballboy quickly scooped up the bug. Djokovic made a “Way to go” face and gave a little racquet-clap before getting set to return serve. It was a charming, relaxed exchange.
Then Djokovic dropped eight of the next nine points, giving back the break to make the score 5-4, on serve.
Medvedev’s a strong player and deserves credit for his shotmaking during those two games. But Djokovic contributed a number of unforced errors. He wasn’t spraying balls, just pushing straightforward shots a few inches long or dumping them into the net.
Two things came to mind as I watched Djokovic’s dip in play.
One, those ball kids must receive special pre-tournament training on bug removal. They’re all efficient and unsqueamish about it. I’d never cut it as a ball girl.
And two, focus is a fleeting quality. Few players are as dialed in as Djokovic, yet even he was temporarily derailed by this 20-second insect interlude.
Years ago, when I’d watch the pros on television, it bothered me how haughty the players seemed towards the ball kids. Many pros won’t pick up a ball rolling near them, and none that I know of will thank or even acknowledge the work of the ball kids while the match is going on. Even normally kind and courteous players don’t engage with the kids fetching their drinks and feeding them balls.
I used to ask myself, how hard is it to just mouth a thank you? Or pick up that ball and toss it over to the ball girl rather than making her scramble awkwardly around your feet?
The longer I play league tennis, though, the more I understand this antisocial behavior. In every match, I strive to find a mental zone, one where I’m purely focused on the ball. Any engagement with other people–encouraging my partner, chatting with opponents, making eye contact with people on the sidelines–carries the potential to knock me out of that zone.
Why should that be? I think it’s because the effects of our interactions with other people don’t end when the interaction ends. Each engagement creates ripples of inner consciousness and self-talk, even if we’re only dimly aware of them: “Did I come across as too bossy when I told my partner to lob?” “Is the opponent now annoyed at me?” “I like the way I handled that questionable line call.”
In the case of Djokovic, I suspect he felt a moment of pleased self-consciousness, thinking, “The crowd likes me now because I took care of the bug and I good-naturedly applauded the ball boy and it was a lighthearted, feel-good moment in this match.” All positive feelings, but nevertheless a diversion from where his focus ought to be.
It didn’t surprise me when Djokovic lost those two games. (I actually said to myself, “He’s spending too much time on this bug.”) It also didn’t surprise me when, after the next changeover, he broke Medvedev’s serve again to win the set. Like the great champion he is, he used the changeover to hit the reset button and re-establish his focus.
So what’s the moral of this fable? Don’t rescue bugs, be a jerk, and talk to no one? Probably not a message Aesop would endorse, but good advice for myself in my own matches.
At my social match today, three of four women said they didn’t like Djokovic. The fourth said she didn’t care for him personally but had to admire his play. Does this lack of love for the current #1 surprise you?
And should I write a whole book of tennis fables? 😅