The Little Voice

Regrets! We all carry them. They’re instructive in avoiding a repeat performance of past mistakes, but we dwell on them for other reasons, too. Maybe a hypothetical universe in which we didn’t make a certain mistake is more desirable to us than the present we live in. Though such a line of thinking is self-defeating, a way of blinding yourself to both the present and future, we’re all mosaics of our past memories. How are we supposed to ignore them, even the unsavory ones?

I wonder constantly how tennis players manage regrets. I’ll regrettably turn to the poorly-researched and recently racist John McEnroe as an example: In the Strokes of Genius documentary, he said, “I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life trying to figure out a way to remember the wins instead of dwelling on my losses.” McEnroe won seven majors, more than but a handful of the best to ever pick up a racket, so if he wrestles with this, virtually everyone else probably does too. So many matches get played in so many different ways against so many opponents that inevitably, no matter who you are, you’ll suffer a heartbreaking loss or a horrendous choke. You will regret something. It’s unavoidable. How do you deal with that, the retrospective what-if?

Andrey Rublev squeaked past Holger Rune in the fourth round of the Australian Open today, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (9). The match really couldn’t have been closer — five sets, two match points saved, net cord return winner on the last point (AGAIN!). Rublev was wracked with relief at the win, falling on his back in victory as one might do after winning a final, not a mere fourth-rounder. His celebration carried elation, yes, but I think Rublev was also relieved that he wasn’t picking up any more emotional baggage (of which he has quite a bit) for the moment.

The match as a whole was more epically dramatic than high-quality. It had its sleepy periods (I almost dozed off in my seat early in the second set after finishing a pack of gummy snakes). Rune, in particular, seemed way off his game. He hit 12 double faults and significantly more unforced errors than winners. I thought something was missing from his rally shot; he usually hammers every groundstroke, but in this match, he looped quite a few, almost to the point of moonballing at times. Whether it was an ankle issue he picked up in the previous round or something else is irrelevant now, but even in loss I wonder if Rune demonstrated himself as the better player. While Rublev led practically all of the stats, Rune was the one who went up a break in the fifth set and was the first to match point. I’d back Rune to win a rematch in a second.

Not that any of that will be of solace to Rune himself. He lost despite a bunch of opportunities to win. I just got back from Federation Square, where I watched Novak Djokovic dispatch Alex de Minaur like Ron Swanson dispatches cuts of meat — I mean it, this match was as one-sided as a match between two high-ranked professionals can get — and I think de Minaur is going to sleep better than Rune tonight. He had an impossible task, really. Djokovic isn’t only a nine-time Australian Open champion, he was in one of his moods, hitting return winners off first serves and shutting down de Minaur’s offense entirely with his spidery baseline coverage. Even if de Minaur had played the best tennis of his life, Djokovic would have beaten him in straight sets, the match would have just been marginally closer. Rune actually had a beatable opponent in Rublev — and was on the precipice of beating him multiple times! He served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, got a chance to return for the match at 5-4 (he didn’t win a point in either game), had the two match points at 6-5, then led the super-tiebreak 5-0 and 7-2. Even in a sport as cruel and fickle as tennis, that’s a lot of demons to create in one match.

In contrast, you can watch de Minaur’s presser here (which is fascinating), and while he expresses regret that he couldn’t make the match more competitive, he sounds more dazed and confused than anything. He mentions going in with a gameplan, but when pressed on what it was, it’s obvious from his demeanor that he never had much faith in his tactics. He gets that Djokovic was near-faultless. He knows that it didn’t matter what his gameplan was, Djokovic hit the ball so relentlessly and consistently deep that de Minaur didn’t have time to execute anything properly. While he wishes he could have put up a stronger front, he knows there was nothing he could have done to win. If he can avoid getting existential about how much better Djokovic is than him, this match doesn’t change much. No reason to be deeply regretful.

This may be more important than it sounds. I think that most tennis players (and maybe athletes in general) fear regret more than they do loss. Matteo Berrettini said in Netflix’s tennis documentary (ever heard of it?) Break Point that his greatest fear was “feeling that I could have done more and I didn’t try, like I didn’t give everything that I had.” In the following episode, we learn that Taylor Fritz played the Indian Wells final despite a badly injured ankle because he didn’t think he could forgive himself if he didn’t take to the court. You’ll notice neither player mentions being afraid of losing here, it’s the lack of effort that’s abhorrent to them. Tennis will find various hells to put players through even when they try their hardest, but finding that inner peace — cheesy as it sounds — is a priority. Even the best players ever lose at more tournaments than they win. Tennis is about dominating, yes, but if you can’t cope with the losses, you’ll be a mess for god knows how long.

And regardless of any objective evaluation — objectively, Fritz shouldn’t have played that final because of the likelihood of it making his ankle worse — what matters most to the player are their own feelings about their play. Tennis players are insanely hard on themselves, often tearing their self-esteem down when they should give themselves grace. Fritz playing through injury was potentially self-destructive, but he saw it as self-preserving. Did it set a good example? No. Would I have done the same? Definitely not. But maybe it was the best thing for him in the moment, eventual result of the final (which he won) aside.

Having too many regrets is like walking around with a sack of cannonballs around your shoulder. You ask yourself, “what if I had done this instead of that?” and the logical answer is that it doesn’t matter because the past is past and dwelling on it impedes your ability to succeed in present and future, but the mind is a stubborn thing. You could be so much happier now, it tells you, if – you – had – just – avoided – making – that – one – mistake. I’ve had days when I linger in the past too much, and it doesn’t matter what my agenda is that day, I’m not getting anything done. The sun is down before I know it. Rublev played a terrible point to lose the fourth set against Rune, not doing enough with a few midcourt forehands and then blowing a swing volley. The thing to do after that is to take a full-blooded cut at the next sitter, because hesitating mid-swing will only make it easier for your opponent to stay in the point. But at match point, 9-8 up in the fifth-set tiebreak, Rublev hit a tentative swing volley to the wrong side of the court and got passed easily. He won despite the hiccup, but it was damn close. He snapped back into the present just in time.

Rublev was clearly still recovering from the stress during his post-match interview. Players tend to spout the same dull platitudes in post-match interviews, often regardless of how important or tense the clash was, but Rublev was glaringly honest. The interviewer asked him if the match was like a rollercoaster. Rublev said it was more like a gun to the head. It was an uncommonly transparent look into a player’s psyche.

Poignant as it was, though, the premise of Rublev’s analogy struck me as flawed. He seems as susceptible as anyone to that little inner voice of regret. It badgers him during matches, constantly asking why he didn’t play each and every point perfectly, which may be why he berates himself so much after seemingly understandable errors. It’s all in pursuit of satisfying that little voice which always demands more from him. Had Rublev lost today after having a two-sets-to-one lead, the little voice probably would have raised in volume, screaming at him as he hit the practice courts, yelling as he tried to sleep. If what tennis players fear above all else truly is regret, then their greatest threat is not the metaphorical gun going off, it’s the possibility of that little voice droning on forever.

Published by Owen

Owen Lewis has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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