Gut Check: Federer, Nadal & Williams

A couple of years ago, I met Chris Evert at her tennis academy in Florida when I was there to address her student athletes on the topic of what it takes, emotionally, to be a champion player. Evert quietly joined the meeting and before long piped up to ask: “How about anger?” Yes, anger matters I answered: grit, determination—the urge to fight through tough patches and control your destiny. Yes, certainly anger matters. But where I lost Evert (I could read it on her face that she checked out) is when I added that after everything was said and done, anger was nevertheless but a part of the picture. For instance, to take the example Evert then raised—Serena Williams—disgust matters, too.

It’s hardly a complete list of the all-time greats who have won multiple grand slam events (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open). But here are how some of the best-ever players have fared, and which of the negative core emotions they score especially high or low on compared to what’s typical over a range of hundreds of famous people, sports stars and non-sports stars alike. (As to happiness, by the way, Venus Williams and Billie Jean King distinguish themselves by feeling intense happiness much more often than is usual across the pool of celebrities I have facially coded over the years.)

Tennis Grand Slam Emo Comparison (resize)

Because the Wimbledon tournament has begun, and Williams is on the cover of Vanity Fair profoundly pregnant, instead of on Wimbledon’s grass courts, let start with this year’s two resurgent great male players: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Just as Williams holds the Open Era record with 23 grand slam event titles, so do Federer and Nadal sit atop the men’s rankings as the greatest male grand slam event titleholders with 18 and 15 victories apiece.

Federer Nadal & Serena Blog Photo (resize)

Federer shows the highest amount of anger of any of the 12 players in my chart, just ahead of Billie Jean King. Score a nod to Evert’s belief that anger is the key to success in tennis, but then add an asterisk that I would like to believe Evert herself would endorse. And it’s this: over-indulge in anger and you endanger success. Given Federer’s graciousness on court these days, many tennis fans might be shocked to learn that early in his career Federer was by his own admission a “hothead.” Racquets got hurled or broken, and the Swiss maestro would argue with his dad (though not with umpires or opponents). In a 2009 match against Novak Djokovic in Miami, Federer mangled a racquet while losing. But in general, after his mentor and coach Peter Carter died during a safari in South Africa in 2002, Federer has been able to honor Carter’s advice to stop wasting energy on court with temper tantrums. “I just tried to find ways to calm myself down on the court,” Federer has said of his transformation to becoming the epitome of sportsmanship on and off the court.

Yes, anger matters in terms of fighting spirit and equilibrium alike. But as my chart illustrates, don’t overlook disgust. Federer’s arch rival Rafa Nadal isn’t just the King of Clay. Nadal is also the most given to disgust of any of the players here that score high on disgust—a pattern that distinguishes the very best grand-slam winners covered here. Look at how Nadal’s upper lip curls in disgust as he goes up into his service motion or after he prevails in a long rally. Like the way Federer’s anger is self-directed, often a reminder to himself to avoid “dumb shots,” Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused. It’s a matter of an almost neurotically ritualistic Nadal willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.

“Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused, willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.”

For Serena Williams, feelings of disgust serve a similar purpose I believe: it’s inner-directed and reflects her compulsion to win. But unlike Nadal, Williams disgust often emerges in the way she wrinkles her nose accompanying a triumphant exclamation upon hitting a winner.  As any parent knows, siblings aren’t likely to be emotionally identical; and Serena shows twice as much disgust as does her older sister Venus Williams. As to Serena Williams’ amount of anger, it’s not the volume but the intensity of the anger that the younger Williams tennis sibling shows that’s noteworthy. Case in point remains the vehement outrage Serena Williams displayed when called for a foot fault during the semi-finals of the 2009 U.S. Open. Williams’ obscenity-laced rebuke of the lines judge led to a further point penalization, awarding the match to Williams’ opponent in a move you’d never see from the new, more restrained version of Federer. “An apology? How many people yell at lines people? I see it happening all the time,” an unrepentant Williams declared afterwards.

Not famous for apologies himself, John McEnroe calls Williams “the greatest female tennis player, no question,” despite Steffi Graff’s 22 grand slams or Evert’s own 18 grand slams  to go with her incredible 90% match winning percentage across all surfaces and all tournaments Evert played in. But McEnroe claims Williams would rank maybe “like 700” on the men’s pro tour. What is he overlooking? I’d start by noting Williams’ indomitable will power. When it comes to a gut-check, it’s actually Williams’ disgust combined with her fear (of losing) that is most striking emotionally about her game.  Overall, my chart suggests that disgust should join anger in being a key predictor of tennis dominance. They’re both strong, visceral emotions: it’s just that in terms of mental toughness, anger and  therefore “anger management” usually attract most of the attention.

Betrayal or Growth: Westbrook, Durant, and the NBA All-Star Game

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The former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates briefly shared the court at Sunday’s 66th annual NBA All-Star game, leading to Russell Westbrook scoring off a pass from Kevin Durant. After that play, you could feel a sigh of collective relief all the way from the West team’s bench as they huddled up in New Orleans, back to the NBA’s head office in New York City. Let’s not feud, guys. That’s the high road, but the main road of the human heart in situations where the word “betrayal” is in the air heads straight back in history to gut-wrenching analogies like Brutus and Caesar or Judas and Christ.

Westbrook and Durant were never an obvious pairing, emotionally. Westbrook’s eyes glint when he’s ecstatic. Durant instead broadly smiles when things are going well. Westbrook’s mouth drops wide open in joy or amazement. When Durant’s mouth sits open, he’s pondering the situation. When Westbrook’s angry, he scowls, eyes hard and wide – staring you down. Durant can get annoyed, but he’s just as likely to look down or away as straight at another player on court. And that’s just the facial expressions. Westbrook doesn’t ever just walk around. The spark-plug guard  swaggers, struts, stalks and prances, whereas Durant glides or ambles when the lanky forward isn’t sweeping toward the basket.

Betrayal would be Westbrook’s word for discovering – via a text message – from his teammate of eight years that Durant was going to sign with the Golden State Warriors instead of renewing with the Thunder. Durant’s move westward could be ridiculed. After all, at Durant’s first Warrior press conference he insisted that “This was the hardest road because I don’t know anybody here.” Never mind that the Warriors sported four players on the West’s All-Star squad this year, including Durant. But Durant was serious, echoing other statements he’s made about seeking personal growth.

“I’m trying to find out who I am,” Durant told The [San Jose] Mercury News in an interview conducted after his move to the Bay area. Clearly the move Durant had in mind transcended mere geography or perhaps even winning a trophy, as important as that is to him. Of Westbrook, Durant said: “He knew who he was. He knew what he wanted to do. He got married young. He met his girlfriend in college. I didn’t have none of that. I didn’t have two parents in a home with me. I’m still trying to search and find out who I am.”

“I’m coming,” Westbrook yelled at Durant during a testy timeout.

“So what,” said Durant in reply.

Confidence is a tricky proposition for any of us, especially great athletes who need all of it to achieve their dreams. Westbrook got snubbed as a starter in the back court for the West, losing out to Warrior star Stephen Curry based on an All-Star voting formula that gives the fans’ votes the edge in a tiebreaker situation. On a pace to become the first triple-double player in the NBA since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-1962 season, Westbrook responded by, first, warming up alone at the far basketball from his West teammates before the game, then scoring 41 points in a high-scoring game where somebody actually playing some defense would have been charged with a crime.

Westbrook’s lonely, even if he’s got his wife and his scoring, rebounds and assists to the less-talented teammates Durant left behind. After their lone collaboration in the All-Star game on Sunday night, Durant and Westbrook were part of a high-fiving huddle but continued to stand apart from one another.  Westbrook had posted a photo on Instagram of miniature cupcakes after Durant’s move out west, echoing a term a Thunder player has used when the team is playing soft. “Some run, some make runways” Westbrook said in a commercial for his new Jordan brand shoe around the same time, a likely reference to Durant.

A week before the All-Star game, the Warriors came to Oklahoma City. The fans wore “Cup-Cake” tee shirts and chanted the dessert at Durant, who was booed on being introduced for the game. “I’m coming,” Westbrook yelled at Durant during a testy timeout. In typical Westbrook style, the lone remaining Thunder superstar repeated his words with a nodding head-thrust for emphasis. “So what,” said Durant in reply.

An aggrieved, forlorn, betrayed, rock-hard Westbrook and, off-court, a more tentative, plaintive, forever evolving Durant: that’s the enduring contrast.  Anger and joyful happiness are Westbrook’s principal emotions. They’re both approach emotions (as opposed to fall-back emotions like disgust), befitting the hard-charging guard.  Normally, Westbrook’s routine is that anger leads to success, making him happy as a result. Or to state things a little too simply, getting angry can make Westbrook happy. But in this case, brooding resentment doesn’t offer release. No victory will bring Durant back into the fold. If loyalty is a feeling, acts that feel like betrayal are thunderbolts none of us ever quite forget being the victim of. One completed pass in the New Orleans arena named the Smoothie King Center can’t possibly heal the rift.