Playing Ball: Controlling the Uncontrollable

by: Steve Tignor | August 10, 2015

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“A vast system of control.” What was Mariana Borg talking about when she said these words in 1980? The totalitarian government in her native Romania? No, she was actually referring to something even more all-encompassing: Her husband Bjorn’s superstitions at Wimbledon. 

Here’s a short list of highlights:

Wearing the same Fila outfit that he had worn to win the title in 1976; five years later, the Swede was still decked out in the same skin-tight, pinstriped shirt. Staying in the same room, in the same less-than-glamorous Holiday Inn in Hampstead. Sitting on the same chair during changeovers. Riding in the same car, and using exactly the same route, each time he traveled from the hotel to the club—Borg’s coach, Lennart Bergelin, didn’t want the Angelic Assassin to be disturbed by “anything unforeseen.” 

Borg's parents, also due to superstition, were only allowed to come watch him at Wimbledon every other year. But they surely understood where their son was coming from. In 1979, Borg’s mother, Margaretha, had been chewing gum in the player’s box during his five-set final against Roscoe Tanner. She finally spat it out, but when Borg lost a game soon after, she picked it up off the floor and stuck it back in her mouth. It’s only crazy if it doesn’t work, they say, and this time it worked. Borg went on to win. Hopefully he thanked his mom later.

Borg’s superstitions are only the most famous in a game that has always been rife with them. Richard Gasquet asks for the same ball after a winning point. Rafael Nadal must have his water bottles perfectly aligned after a changeover, and the baseline clear of clay before he returns serve. Serena Williams has worn the same socks throughout a tournament. Garbine Muguruza said she stuck to the same routine and ate at the same restaurant after every match during her run to the Wimbledon final this year—“We can’t change anything!” she said with a laugh. Last year Jack Sock told the Sydney Morning Herald that, at the 2013 U.S. Open, he wanted both ball kids behind him to have three balls each before he served. “At one point, one had four and the other had two,” Sock said, “and I got broken in that game. So I talked to them to make sure they knew to keep it at three and three.”

Ludicrous, right? Also, randomly observant and weirdly complicated. But a tennis court is a logical place for the weeds of superstition to thrive, blossom, and eventually grow out of control. There aren’t many other places where you’re alone with your thoughts for two to three to four hours. With so much time to think, and thus become more anxious, what else are you going to do with those thoughts except twist them into strangely comforting rituals? 

Strange, but not useless. Keeping up a superstition is, among other things, a way to help us do what we’re always taught to do in tennis: Stay in the moment. For me, limiting my thoughts to the here and now during a match is the most difficult mental task of all. If I win a couple points in a row at the start of a set, I immediately begin to imagine winning the set 6-0. Then, a second or two later, I start to worry that I might blow that big lead I've imagined for myself; in reality, of course, the score is still 30-15 in the first game. This process also works in the opposite direction. If I blow an easy shot on a big point, it will stay in my mind for games, sets, possibly years. I can still vividly remember drilling a simple backhand into the net on a match point when I was 13. 

When something like that happens in the middle of a match now, my mind doesn't just drift back to the opportunity that has been lost. It seems to hope that it can make time run backwards so I can have another crack at it.

The high volley I dumped in the net, the forehand pass I never miss in practice, but somehow missed when it mattered: Those mistakes happen so fast, and stay so fresh in the mind, that you feel like you should be able to go back and redo them. In your mind, the ball is still there, right in front of you, taunting you, waiting to be smacked for an easy winner—imagine how good you would feel if you had made that shot! Only on a tennis court do you understand how final and unrecoverable time is; only on a tennis court do you try so hard to recover it.

Better to distract yourself from these unproductive thoughts by making sure your water bottles are pointing in the right direction, and that you’re bouncing the ball the proper number of times before you serve. 

These are not habits that die easily, if ever; they become as necessary to your game as a reliable second serve. I’m amazed by how many old superstitions from my primitive early days as a junior player are still skulking around in my adult brain today. 

I don’t, as I did in my first tournament match when I was 11, literally pray to god after every point to let me win the next one. But I do make sure that I have all three balls before my first service game of a set. I still wonder, after saying the score before a point and then winning it, whether I should I say the score after every point. And if that doesn’t work, I may try saying the score after every other point—maybe that’s been the secret to success all along. It’s also very important, in between points, how I send the balls back across the net to my opponent when he’s serving. If they land between the service line and the baseline, that’s a good thing; if they land between the service line and the net, this is bad. Why, I had no idea, but it’s a feeling I can’t shake.

Thankfully I no longer feel the need to conjure up what I considered my lucky song when I was 14: Bob Seger's "Roll Me Away." One time this awful tune had come, unbidden, into my mind just before a big point; I won the point, and the match, and then tried for years to make the song work that same magic again. It's probably also good that I no longer insist that my doubles partners join me in singing "Sympathy for the Devil" back and forth as we play. Though it should be noted that this ritual did work on one occasion: My high school partner and I won our local district title while reciting the entire song, beginning with its opening bongo rhythm, in between points. I can't remember how our opponents reacted to hearing two 15-year-olds chant, as we changed sides, "I shouted out, 'Who killed the Kennedys?' when after all, it was you and me." Looking back, though, it does sound a little intimidating. 

A tennis match puts us into a temporarily heightened sense of anxiety; it’s like forcing your nervous system to levitate. By daring to lose, you court fate in a way that you don’t in everyday life; hope and dread are intensified for as long as the match lasts. As irrational as it sounds, winning means that, at some level, everything turned out O.K., and that deep down you are an O.K. person. Timothy Gallwey, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, likes to tell the story of the surgeon who admitted he was far more nervous on a tennis court than he was in an operating room. His tennis performance, after all, said something about him

No wonder we have so many superstitions. It’s our way, like Borg, of trying to control the uncontrollable, the fate that we have deliberately tempted by playing a match in the first place. Yet Borg may have tried too hard to control fate in the end; when he finally lost at Wimbledon in 1981, he never returned. All of his superstitions had failed him.

It’s nice, sometimes, to lose that control. The other day I went against my tradition and didn’t gather up all three balls before I served the opening game of a set. When I went down 0-40, I thought, “Oh God, why didn’t I get that third ball? What a mistake!” Then I won the next six games.

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