The Beetle and the Ballboy

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? 😅

6 thoughts on “The Beetle and the Ballboy

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  1. Love the beetle and the ball boy! What you say about focus makes so much sense. It’s actually one reason I love competitive sports, because you can get in the zone and put the rest of your brain on hold…no worries, no To Do list, all in. You don’t necessarily get that from the average workout, but if you’re serious about trying to win, you don’t have much choice.

    Yes! Write a book of tennis parables. OK, maybe not. But do keep writing the blog. It’s such fun to read.

    1. Agreed, plus when you return to your daily life after focusing on a match, your day-to-day stuff seems so much more manageable. Your brain feels refreshed–especially if you won. 😅🎾

  2. Loved this piece. Interesting, thoughtful and totally on the mark. I once had a partner who would offer me or our competition m&ms during changeovers. For her it was both fuel and adding some light hearted fun. For me it was distracting and depleting my focus. I nicely (I think) asked her if she could enjoy her m&ms all that she wanted but not have all that social interaction. She agreed. I felt like a jerk but it is exactly the feelings you speak about in this blog. Thank you!

    1. “Depleting focus” is a good way of putting it. That’s just how it feels, like it has been siphoned off. Good for you for asking your partner to change her behavior. That isn’t always an easy thing to do. And good for her for going along!

      Be a jerk. The new tennis mantra.

  3. Love your take on focus, Deb. I had a lovely, friendly partner who chatted and laughed with the opponents on changeovers, even searching for friends they had in common. It really derailed my already tentative focus. I had to try to follow suit or look like the grouch.
    On The joker (hardly). I know I’m put off by his behavior when he’s losing, or when the crowd is against him. Interesting that he’s not really a crowd favorite and yet he is supposed to be a favorite among the players.
    Your match today—4 comments. Which was yours?!

    1. I guess the issue all of us face is deciding how much we want to win. Do we want it enough to dispense with social conventions? Do we want it enough to stop seeing the other people on the court as, well, people–humans who have some right or claim to our attention? It’s a really difficult thing to deny other people your attention, especially when you want to be liked and well-regarded yourself. I’m only beginning to learn how to do this in matches. I’d never do it in a social match, though. I love my friends too much!

      As for the Djokovic conversation, I do admire his game (how can you not?!) but I wasn’t the person who said it. I’d say 99% of the time, he isn’t doing anything that bugs me. He even applauds good shots, which crowd-favorite Rafa rarely does. But, as you say, when Djokovic feels like the crowd isn’t rooting for him, he acts like a pouty brat. It’s too bad that that 1% of his behavior should so color my opinion of him, but I think that’s true for other people who dislike him as well. That’s what I find surprising–that we’re all so put off by one fairly small character flaw. I kind of feel like it’s a bigger character flaw on MY part to be so unforgiving of his!

      I do love his humor, though. I miss all his impersonations!

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