Focused at the Citrix
Dr. John Murray
Let's look at the recent Citrix Tennis Championships in Delray Beach, Florida. As one of 16 North American ATP Tour Events, this tournament offered a full week of exceptional athletic performance and exciting competition. Thanks to press credentials from the Tennis Server, I was privileged with courtside box seats, player's lounge access, and post-match press conferences. I tested a few sport psychology theories and shared insights with some of the top players in the world. This month, we'll explore some of the heart pounding competition and Mental Equipment in the Florida sun.
The Delray Beach Tennis Center reminded me of the intimacy of the resort atmosphere found at the Austrian Championships in Kitzbuhel. Players, coaches and fans intermingle in an atmosphere of relaxed excitement. Side court matches are seen at extreme close-up and one moderate sized stadium court is reserved for the feature matches of the day. The whole scene, including the price of food and beverages, is about two times electronically smaller than the US Open. The slow hard court surface replaced the even slower red clay championships in Coral Springs two years ago. Tournament directors Mark Baron and Fred Stolle attracted wonderful sponsors and top seeds including Patrick Rafter, Karim Alami, Vincent Spadea, Mariano Zabaleta, Chris Woodruff and Michael Chang. However, it was the number six seed and top Austrian, Stefan Koubek, who would feel most at home and steal the show, further confirming my hunch that we were actually in Tyrol!
Fans were admitted free of charge to the first days qualifying matches and I had the pleasure of watching an unknown scrapper named Alex Calatrava from Spain claw his way into the main draw. Fans stood around in awe of his tenacity, quickness and booming passing shots and serves as he shot past Mashika Washington, Andrew Kratzman, and Nenad Zimonjic. He closed out a tough 3 set comeback against Zimonjic with three terrific service winners in the final tiebreaker to gain entry into the main draw. His display of mental toughness in the clutch would be repeated many times as he made it all the way to the finals upsetting Woodruff and Zabaleta along the way. After 8 long matches, I think he was ready for a quiet vacation in Palm Beach! It is interesting how surviving near extinction in tennis often propels the victor to greater heights with a perfect blend of fearless intensity.
Another qualifying match I watched was the three setter between Mike Bryan and James Blake. Bryan won but eventually succumbed to Calatrava in the second round of the main draw. Blake's star is rising, but his mental approach appeared to impair his performance on this day. Distracted by a line call in the final set, he dropped his head several times, showed prolonged frustration, and looked confused. Re-focusing is a skill that players at all levels need to master. Blake's speed and shotmaking are extraordinary, and there is no limit to how far he'll go when he learns to focus and control his intensity more effectively.
In between matches, Patrick Rafter was seen training shirtless in the hot Delray sun, just a cool breeze compared with the scorching sun he endures down under. He attracted a large female following to his practices, but let them all down with a three set quarter-final loss to Paul Goldstein. Rafter still looks rusty after an injury and long layoff and his groundstrokes showed it. There is no substitute for regular competition! Goldstein lost to Calatrava in the semi-finals.
Michael Chang lost in the first round to Andrew Ilie 7-6, 6-4. I charted the match and it was a classic battle of the big hitter (Ilie) against the backboard (Chang), with serves relatively even. With Ilie down in the first set tiebreaker 4-6, he suddenly found his mark, turned on the forehand juice, reeled off three consecutive blistering shots under pressure, and won 8-6! Talk about going for it! Chang still looks solid, but nothing like the player who used to dominate. Chang's great counterpunching couldn't withstand Ilie's awesome power, bold attacks, and 126mph serves. This was all for Ilie, however, as his winner to unforced error percentage dropped in his loss to Richard Fromberg in the second round.
Calatrava beat Goldstein in another tremendous comeback, down 5-2 in the final set. Remember that your opponent is often most vulnerable when they are on the brink of victory! Koubek outlasted Fromberg in three sets, aided by a two hour delay that helped Koubek refocus after losing the first set. Fromberg became angry late in the match, appeared to lose focus and rushed his pre-shot routines. Remember that energy control is essential, and quite vulnerable to emotional changes! A consistent pre-shot routine provides security and guards against the ups and downs that so often occur. Still, the lefty Koubek's leaping two handed backhand down the line was razor sharp, and too much for the tall and talented Fromberg.
The man from Austria overwhelmed the Spaniard in a highly competitive and crowd pleasing 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 final. Stefan Koubek is now ranked #17 in the ATP Champions Race, and I had the honor to privately interview him about a variety of topics including his mental approach to the game. We'll save some of his his insights for a future article! For now, let's just say that the Austrian #1 felt completely at home in Florida, and if he continues to improve on hard courts, there is no telling how far his star will rise. He is already a master on clay, and his 28 wins on clay last year were second most on the tour. As for Calatrava, what an incredible run! Typical rags to riches story for him at the Citrix. Look for more from him in the coming months.
I hope you've enjoyed your trip to the Citrix Championships and a glimpse into some of the mental twists and turns that we all face so often in this great sport. See you next month ...
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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.
Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.