The Rally: Slaying the Fathers (& Uncles)

by: Steve Tignor | April 04, 2013

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The Rally continues today with my discussion of tennis and the mind with Alexandra Guhde, Psyd., a clinical psychologist in Oakland and San Francisco who also writes the tennis blog Extreme Western Grip. You can see Part 1 of our talk here.



I'm glad to know that the legendary coach Vic Braden isn't a charlatan after all, and it makes me curious what type of player and person I might be. I don't think I'm extraverted in anything, but I do see some of Andy Murray in the way I get irrationally angry at myself on court. Federer is an especially interesting case—an extravert in the way he expresses himself as a player, but an introvert as a thinker? I wonder what you make of his rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. I, along with plenty of others, have done a lot of amateur psychoanalyzing of their personalities over the years, so I'd be interested in an expert opinion. Djokovic's story has a definite Oedipal ring to it, as does Rafa's, but with an uncle in place of a father.

I notice now that we've only talked about the men—not an uncommon occurrence in pro tennis discussions. Perhaps another time we could discuss the psychologies of the women. Maybe it's because I'm a man, or maybe because the best-known psychological terms—i.e., Oedipal—are male-based, but I'm not sure what a psychologist would make of the women's conflicts and motivations. Though I imagine you could have a field day with Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova. How about their co-handshake with the umpire after the Miami final?



I’d be happy to discuss the female pros in the future. Maybe we could have another Rally devoted to the WTA? That handshake was worth a thousand words! 

You highlight the Oedipal Complex—today’s main topic—as one of the male-oriented aspects of psychology, and you’re right. Freud had a lot of interesting theories, but he was flat-out wrong when he came to female psychology. He thought that men and women took fundamentally different developmental paths, and although his ideas conformed neatly to Victorian culture, they sound ridiculous today. 

For instance, you brought up the term “Fedipal Complex” yesterday. The players you mentioned in relation to it were Roger Federer (obviously) and… Serena Williams. The thing that fascinates me about the Oedipal Complex is not that Sigmund Freud had erroneous notions about how it worked, or didn’t work, for women, but that it’s still so relevant over 100 years later. It definitely applies to tennis matches, and there’s no doubt it applies to the way lesser-ranked players react to the likes of Federer and Williams. 

So, Fedipal Complex? Sure. If a mythical Theban king gets his own complex, why not tennis’ most decorated ENTP? In a nutshell, the Oedipal Complex—it’s more often thought of as a developmental stage or position now days—includes our unconscious wishes and fears having to do with ambition and achievement. 

Both Roger and Serena maintain relatively stoic on-court demeanors, making them "blank slates" onto which other players are free to project their favorite persecutory anxieties. For example, after stealing a set but losing the match to his "idol" at Roland Garros last year, David Goffin said of Federer, “What is very frightening is his attitude. When he was down, I thought he's going to show something with his face, he's going to have a shake in his lips. Nothing. Poker face. Like in every other match. He's very focused. Even when he's not playing at his best level, he continues playing and he ended up winning. Just like anywhere else. That's what I find impressive.”

For her part, Serena’s long periods of silence are made even more powerful by the fist-clenching roar with which she typically breaks them. Following a straight sets loss to Williams at the U.S. Open in 2011, Ana Ivanovic responded to a question about how she deals with Serena’s overwhelming presence by saying, “I really try not to look so much across the net.” But even without Williams or Federer— or Nadal and Djokovic— comparisons between tennis and Oedipal struggles are apt. 

Almost any tennis match can be watched as a dramatic reenactment of an Oedipal tale (if you’re on Twitter you can even have the accompanying Chorus). The close involvement of parents in tennis careers probably augments the Oedipal overtones. For example, Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, could be read from a number of psychological perspectives, but it’s the Oedipal material that gives the story its potent, archetypal quality. At times it reads like a fairy tale. To summarize,

Once there was a boy who feared and hated his tyrant father. The father insisted the boy work hard to make his father’s dreams come true. From the child’s perspective his father also denied him access to nurturing love from his mother. When the boy is old enough he goes off on a quest to slay the ‘Dragon’ of his father’s creation. Along the way the boy learns many hard lessons, becomes a man, conquers his father in effigy—the version of tennis he ‘hates’— and therefore wins the ultimate prize: the love of a good woman. 

Agassi’s viciously attacking approach to on-court defense fits with his personal story. Every match was another chance to slay the dragon. And it took years to find a happy ending. The Oedipal struggle was initially called a "complex" in part because it’s complicated. The legend itself ends tragically. Poor Oedipus winds up lost and blind, without father, mother, or partner—and without a kingdom. The journey requires great bravery, and a tolerance for both failure and the unknown. Healthy resolutions are hard won, and they usually require many go-rounds at different times of life. 

That said, I hesitate to equate becoming a “champion” with achieving psychological health. The fact that a player is winning, or losing, tennis matches doesn’t say much about his overall mental status. Nevertheless, sometimes a player will go through a process so pronounced it’s difficult not to see it as a part of his personal individuation—Novak Djokovic’s 2011 season makes a great example. 

Being highly competitive, many tennis pros have had the childhood experience of being what’s known as the "Oedipal victor." Despite the winning name, being an Oedipal victor is actually a burden. It means the child has had to take on responsibilities well beyond his or her years, either surpassing one parent, or meaning “too much” to the other. By several accounts, Djokovic had both those experiences. In fact, the seven-year-old Djokovic once said, “Tennis is my job. My goal is to become No. 1.” 

When Novak reached that goal in 2011, it looked as if he’d done so, in part, by going through a healthy individuation process from his parents. Djokovic is easily the most extraverted player in the Big 4, and he thrives on playing for causes larger than himself, drawing energy from his environment. Playing for the benefit of his parents and family took Djokovic near the top of the game, but it was also confining. 

It’s reductive to see the 2010 Davis Cup final as key to Djokovic’s transformation, but that victory did act as an initiatory experience for the Serb, helping him separate from his parent’s goals for him, connect with his generation, and formulate his own goals—which just so happened to include the No. 1 ranking. (Who needs daddy’s kingdom when you’ve got your own?)

Rafael Nadal is another player who thrives on playing for a larger cause, albeit one more internal and personal. While reading Nadal’s 2011 autobiography, RAFA, I was sorely tempted to count the number of times the word “injustice” appeared in reference to Nadal’s coach, uncle, and Oedipal father-figure, Toni Nadal. In RAFA, John Carlin described Toni’s approach to coaching: “He began as he meant to continue, by treating his nephew with undisguised injustice.”

Years later we know Toni’s method worked, at least on the court. Rafael Nadal isn’t satisfied with merely winning tennis matches, he’s out for justice. That’s a pretty unshakeable motivator, and part of what makes Rafa so dangerous when he’s on the ropes. It’s also a lifelong quest. Incidentally, I suspect Toni’s treatment of his charge has lot to do with Nadal’s pace of play; Toni himself constantly made Rafa wait when he was young. Perhaps that’s another topic for another time.

Setting aside technical skills (impossible except in theory), one reason we might see players repeating the same results and patterns time and time again—from triumphs to blow-ups, to defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, etc.—is that while each match is a new battle, the quest remains the same. David Ferrer’s  loss to Andy Murray, the fourth member of Ferrer's collective nemesis known as the Big 4, in the Sony Open final comes to mind as a recent example. But that’s part of the thrill for the fans; we never know which battle will turn out to be the decisive one. Hope springs eternal—which brings me to Ryan Harrison. 

The young American is another player whose Oedipal myth has been documented for posterity. When he was just 11 years old, he reached the final of his hometown’s adult championship. The man across the net was his own coach and father, Pat Harrison. Ryan lost 6-3, 6-1. During the match he also threw his racquet and yelled at the chair umpire for giving his father “everything.” It was then that Pat Harrison told his son he was embarrassing himself. Ryan reportedly left the court in tears. 

Although there's humor in this story of childish antics—some of which are very familiar nearly 10 years down the road—it tugs at my heartstrings. Harrison was caught in a vicious double-bind. Damned if he defeated his father, because 11 is too tender an age to be wandering blind without a kingdom, and damned if he failed, because his father was also his coach. Also, precocity and perfectionism are costly traits to bear. As much as they push a person ahead early, they’ll oppress him later on. 

One reason the psychotherapy process so often moves in a one-step forward, two-steps back pattern is that learning new things is a blow to the ego—it means admitting we didn’t know it already. Ryan Harrison is not the only professional tennis player to find himself in his situation. He’s not the only one to be born into his career, with a coach father, and told his task in life is to become No. 1. But the fact that others have been there before him doesn’t pave the way for Harrison. The only way out for Ryan is through. 

The fact is, there’s no place else to begin except at the beginning. Allowing oneself to be a true beginner is an achievement in and of itself, and the longer we put it off, the harder it becomes to start the journey. So if I could give Ryan Harrison a few words of advice? I’d tell him that it’s OK to be a beginner on the pro tour, and it’s OK that it’s hard to be a beginner. Time is all you’re guaranteed in life—so take it. Oh, and I’d also tell him to stand closer to the baseline. 

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