LONDON—‘Confidence’—and its close associate, ‘belief’—is one of those maddeningly imprecise words, drained of all meaning by overuse, with which it’s almost impossible to dispense when discussing tennis, or indeed life. It’s convenient shorthand for a whole bundle of intangibles, which is why fans and analysts use it such a lot; a piece of jargon masquerading as insight.
The context in which confidence is most often invoked, tennis-wise, is that of the so-called ‘big points.’ Andy Murray was asked, after his win over Tomas Berdych on Monday, whether his U.S. Open title had given him more day-to-day confidence. I liked the way he answered the question, referring back to painful defeats of the 2012 season: To Novak Djokovic in Australia, to Roger Federer at Wimbledon. “I’ve learnt a lot this year how I need to play those big points in big games,” Murray said, referring to specifically tactical and strategic considerations: Moving forward, being aggressive, dictating the points. “I think it’s that rather than confidence.”
It was a subtle but precise distinction which stood in stark contrast to the airy invocation of ‘confidence’ and ‘belief’ that’s characteristic of so many pundits and commentators. I get the feeling, too, that there are players for whom ‘confidence’ is a real answer in and of itself, and others who want to talk in terms of tactics, techniques, and strategy. Murray and Federer are the two examples of the latter attitude that spring immediately to mind. Djokovic is a good example of the former.
I mention Djokovic because, despite coming into this tournament in unknown form, potentially distracted by personal problems, and looking somewhat below his best on the court for stretches of both his matches, he’s the only player in Group A with two wins to his credit. Against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and most recently against Murray, he was the poorer player at the beginning of the match, but he won both encounters because he was better in, yes, the big moments. It’s almost impossible not to invoke the ‘c’ word in discussing these particular turns of events.
When I was pondering writing something themed around confidence during the Djokovic-Murray match, I initially thought it was going to be about if and why Murray’s has developed over the past year or so, and how that change is rooted in his vastly improved forehand. Then came one of this match’s ‘big points,’ with Djokovic serving at 1-1 in the second set, break point down after an unlucky netcord which could easily have convinced him that the world was against him, or more fatalistically that it simply wasn’t his day. Instead, he hit a drive volley that clipped the back of the line, earned a break a couple of games later when Murray’s own unexpected serve-and-volley ploy on break point misfired, and gained in stature as his opponent faded, surged, and faded again.
While matches like today’s encourage the supposition that the barometer of Murray’s confidence is the success he’s having in flattening out his forehand, I don’t know where you look in the seamless Djokovic game for such an indication. I suppose you have to look at his results; the three-set record this year, the break points fought off, the match points survived.
Confidence is complex. Did Murray’s serve-and-volley on break point in the second set—about which he was quizzed in the post-match press conference—suggest a lack of confidence (“I can’t trust myself to play the tennis I’m most comfortable with at the crucial moment”) or too much of it? Neither; Murray had sound reasons for choosing that particular play—Djokovic was chipping and blocking returns back and he felt he could come in—and the execution was off “by a couple of centimeters.” Like the man said, “there are decisions you make in matches. If they come off, you get told you’re a genius. If you miss them, you’re an idiot.” He might just as easily have said: If they come off, it’s because you’re confident, because you believed in your shots. If they don’t, suddenly it’s not about confidence at all.
French philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff has a concept of what she calls the ‘primal scene,’ a moment or incident which is a shock to the system and inspires lifelong patterns of behavior; in her case, a devastating loss of confidence. While it would take a book to properly apply that idea to the complexity of tennis careers, at heart it’s the same search: The key moments, the big points: Those that ignite, those that deflate. Could David Ferrer have played the kind of scorching, feet-with-wings tennis he played in the third set against Juan Martin del Potro yesterday without some kind of crucial boost, whether that’s his seven titles in 2012, or his head-to-head record against the big man, or his recent breakthrough in Paris? Probably not. There’s a maddening circularity about it: You win because you’re confident, you’re confident because you win. And while it’s pretty standard to credit Murray’s Olympic win and the consequent boost in self-belief with finally breaking through the Slam barrier, which of Djokovic’s many, continuing, dizzying accomplishments would you identify as his ‘primal scene,’ the core of his confidence?
When I watch Djokovic raising his game that crucial step to beat Murray, as he did in Shanghai and as he did again here (4-6, 6-3, 7-5), or winning sets that he really should have lost, as he did against Tsonga in Beijing and again here, I struggle to draw a quick or easy conclusion from it. For me, his game is so strong in all areas, so much an organic whole, that it’s as hard to break down analytically as it is for his opponents to take it apart on the court. It just all seems to work—and when it doesn’t work, it’s a safe bet that it will suddenly kick into high gear just when all seems lost.
Maybe Djokovic knows exactly how and why it works, what he draws on in those crucial moments; maybe ‘confidence’ has an actual, factual, specific meaning for him which lends depth to bland statements like, “confidence plays a key role for any person on this planet, I think, especially for athletes at this level … When you have this positive mindset, when you believe in your game, you have better chances of winning those crucial points.” Or maybe it’s just as much of a mystery to him as it is to me. “Calm mind always wins. I guess that’s an answer,” he says, laughing in a way that suggests he knows very well that it isn’t.