Why Do Spectacular Players Rarely Reach the Pinnacle of Tennis?

By Nick Carter

I would like to start by saying I don’t think I have a full answer to the question I am asking. I have some potential ideas that we can use to speculate, but I lack the technical knowledge and more importantly personal insight into the individuals mentioned. I genuinely would like to see some input from everyone reading this, and I look forward to any discussion that this piece generates. The other thing I want to make sure we deal with up front is that this will focus on ATP players, as you don’t really get this phenomenon on the WTA Tour.

Let’s define a ‘spectacular’ player. Essentially, what I mean is someone who regularly gets on highlight reels, who comes up with amazing shots that no one else seems to be able to do. This is despite often not having a top ten, or even top twenty ranking. Yet, because the crowds love them, they are marketed by the ATP as much as the ‘Big Four’ and the new generation of Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas, Rublev and even the new guys Sinner and Alcaraz. The players that might already be coming to mind that would fit in this ‘spectacular’ category would be Gael Monfils and Nick Kyrgios. 

Let’s get Kyrgios out of the way now as I know he is a controversial figure, and also the best example of a player known more for the spectacle he causes than any high level of success. His attitude on court and off court isn’t always pleasant. Though I don’t know his full story, he comes across as someone who knows how good he is, and how good he could be, which has probably inflated his ego. What is clear, however, is that his main limitation is his mentality and physical fitness, whilst his biggest tactical issue is shot selection. Kyrgios can do anything he wants with a tennis ball. He can hit brutal forehands and unreturnable serves, yet also has a deft touch that allows him to place balls at ridiculous angles. His movement is underrated and allows him to put himself in position to hit anything he wants to (although he seems to have done the ‘tweener to death now). The fact he has such a wide range of shots at his disposal means that he can almost perfectly disguise anything he does. Playing against peak Kyrgios must be frustrating, as he can either overwhelm you with power or disrupt you with variety. I don’t want to go over this too much, as Owais has already written extensively about him.

Benoit Paire is in a similar category to Kyrgios. He is a gifted player (although possibly lacking some of the Australian’s raw talent) but his mental state is up and down, which has led to some unpleasant incidents. Paire does not have the same level of power as a lot of other players, but his incredible feel for the ball enables him to place his shots anywhere on court, be it from a lob, drop shot or ‘tweener. There are some limitations to his game. Whilst he is great at cat and mouse he can be easily outplayed by power or sheer ruthless consistency.

Someone else who is known for his (at times) less-than-professional attitude and unorthodox game is Alexander Bublik. Unlike the two other players listed, Bublik is happy enough and confident enough to rally from the baseline, but also has the ability to mix up his shot selection and disrupt an opponent’s rhythm. His bullet forehand allows him to hit screaming winners, but he does also love to use the half-volley to put the ball in awkward places. The only thing I will say is that whilst I think some of his shot selection is tactical (particularly when deploying the under-arm serve), a lot of it is his brain going “oh what the hell, let’s try it”. 

This brings us back to Gael Monfils as he is someone who has, to an extent, honed that raw talent into some success (two major semi-finals, three Masters Finals, three ATP 500 titles, two year-end top ten finishes). In fact, Monfils is the first player on this list to have cracked the top ten and has also reached at least one final on tour every year since 2005. Monfils is difficult to beat due to his high-quality defensive play, his easy power and movement. He also has incredible feel, and he just tries things no one else does. Some of his shot selection is because he is trying to impress, but I think the majority are instinctive. He clearly has so much talent, as shown by his results in the Junior Majors, coming close to winning the Grand Slam in 2004. Yet he is also one of those players that needs to be mentally engaged. When he’s not then at worst he’s flat and at best he’s misfiring. 

Monfils would go on to win this point. Screenshot: Tennis TV

Monfils is not the only clearly gifted player with limited success. I would say that you could almost put Grigor Dimitrov and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in this category. Their athleticism allowed them, when at their peak, to improvise winners from anywhere on the court. Both Dimitrov and Tsonga have produced big results; Dimitrov won the ATP Finals in 2017, whilst Tsonga reached the Australian Open final in 2008. Yet, they also suffered from limitations mentally, arguably not really bringing their best when other big opportunities arose. The comparison is limited as I don’t think either have as much feel for the ball as Kyrgios or Monfils.

Looking at these players, this raises a question: do you use your talent to ensure you can do anything, or do you hone it to execute the essentials to the highest possible level? Going back to Monfils, he is one of the best retrievers on tour but Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray defend more consistently. You can infer this by the fact that most of these players mentioned have struggled to beat the ‘Big Four’, apart from Kyrgios and Tsonga, and even then, it depends on the day. Arguably, they are better match players, preferring to be patient and work to shift momentum in their favour. This is not only because they are mentally tougher but also due to a higher level of athleticism from all three of these players. If you think about Nadal and Djokovic in particular, they are able to chase down any ball and find a way to win, which is the type of point you will typically think of their highlight reels. This is where training works together with talent, you can’t just use honed technique or even pure instinct, you need to have the athleticism to put yourself in a position to execute. 

Roger Federer can also do what he wants with a tennis ball because of unbelievable racquet control. Highlight reels show him able to make almost any shot most of the time, and even able to invent new ones. He is much more mentally controlled, only really utilising this skill when he’s down in a rally or so far ahead that he can afford to toy with his opponent. Tennis is about maintaining a consistent level through a match, something Kyrgios definitely struggles with, as does Monfils to an extent. Interestingly, Federer has also struggled with this more than one would think, particularly at the beginning and latter parts of his career. However, at his peak he was one of the most ruthless match-players on tour. He is also underrated as an athlete; his court speed is very deceptive but even more so when compared to Nadal and Djokovic who have that little bit extra in their legs. 

It all comes down to mental discipline in the end. It’s about not just knowing which shot to choose and when but also training to the required level to play with the best. Fortunately, Vansh has just put something up on that topic recently, so I recommend you go read that now. Raw talent isn’t enough, a player needs to have the mentality to know how and when to use it. 

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