Billie Jean King famously named her book, Pressure is a Privilege.
The way the singles opening round at Wimbledon played out, both sides of that life lesson manifested on the grass of All England Club. Some top seeds and former champions crumbled, other top seeds and former champions fought back.
There were tears and disbelief, there was resilience and there were storylines for the ages. But amidst it all, the first two days of the Championship made one thing very clear: uneasy lies the racquet with expectations on it.
On the first day, two-time Grand Slam winner and second seed Naomi Osaka was stunned in straight sets, sixth and seventh seed and Next Gen hopefuls Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas crashed out, 39-year-old Venus Williams lost to 15-year-old Cori Gauff, fifth seed and the youngest active Major finalist Dominic Thiem was bagel-ed, 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza lost and 2004 champion Mari Sharapova retired hurt.
At the same time, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were broken early, Roger Federer dropped the first set, Serena Williams was tested while serving for the match, Simona Halep was under the pump too. But they all fought back. They all won.
Arguably, this is not entirely a fair comparison, but it highlights the threshold a player needs to cross, especially at Grand Slams. Finding a way back early in the competition, being able to raise gears and hold your nerve after a stutter is what sets players apart on the Major stage.
This is something that a lot of young tennis players, and some old, are not able to do consistently and it’s only getting worse. The stakes are very different for the emerging generation and it seems to affect them on a fundamental level.
The carnage of seeds in the opening rounds of Wimbledon last year was worse but this time, the cracks among the young top seeds are far more visible
Osaka was almost in tears and asked to leave the press conference, Zverev looked heartbroken and admitted to being zero on confidence, Tsitsipas sat stunned and was self-deprecating.
These three are perhaps the brightest young stars in tennis and the expectations from them are natural. But the pressure they have been put under – from fans, media and themselves perhaps – is becoming a monster that is eating away at them.
Osaka, at 21, is a two-time Grand Slam champion and a world No 1. Tsitsipas, at 20, has a Grand Slam semi-final after beating Roger Federer and has lost to Djokovic and Nadal in the two Masters 1000 final he has played. Zverev, at 22, has a career-high rank of 3, is the only player apart from the Big Three to have three Masters titles and beat Djokovic at the ATP World Tour Finals.
Essentially, the talent that they possess is not in doubt. The temperament is what they have to work on.
The monster called constant scrutiny
But in today’s time, it is easier said than done. The way fans consume sport has changed drastically with social media and it’s hard for athletes to switch off when their phones are constantly buzzing. With the constant chatter on their accounts and the increasing follower count, they are open to scrutiny from more than the media and the people they meet, it’s a thousand people talking to them virtually.
Cricket great Sachin Tendulkar explained this when he spoke about the wait for the 100th 100. He spoke about how anyone and everyone would ask him about the landmark which became frustrating and then played on his mind.
If a Tendulkar, who spent more than a decade dealing with the pressure of expectations felt bogged down by people’s constant questions, imagine how much worse it can be for someone in their early 20s?
When asked if it has been difficult to get used to the new level of fame that she has after becoming a global superstar, Osaka excused herself from the room.
Zverev simply seemed to have given up and accepted his failure at Slams. “It was kind of a typical Grand Slam match for me. I started off well, then one or two things don’t go my way, and everything kind of a little bit falls apart.”
Tsitsipas, of poignant philosophy and motivational quotes, shared what standards he felt he had to meet. “Rafa, Roger, seemed very mature and professional what they were doing. They had consistency from a young age. They always did well tournament by tournament without major drops or inconsistency”
This is a ridiculous burden to carry in addition to playing your best game at a Grand Slam. It seems like their game is becoming more about the results that the groundwork to get there. And the only way forward is to shake it off.
Federer’s advice to Osaka before Wimbledon comes to mind.
“At the end of the day, you are still the same person. You have to take the losses, shake them off and get on with it,” he had said at Halle after she admitted her struggles as world No 1.
The 37-year-old had similar words for the youngsters who lost in the first round and seemed shattered. “I understand. I was Mr. Emotional, so... I come from that same side. Take a super shower. Leave all the tears in the locker room... I just feel like maybe taking extra time when you’re young, when you’re so sad is maybe the way to go.”
The emotions seemed to be a millstone adding to the loss and pressure. Osaka admitted the key for her was to learn to have fun again, Tsitsipas said that maybe he didn’t deserve a break while Zverev said that he had too much to deal with outside court to do well on court.
But taking time is the key here. It’s the template that worked for new world No 1 Ashleigh Barty. A teen prodigy, the Australian stepped away from tennis because the pressure and grind got to her. She worked on her mental health, regrouped emotionally as she played cricket and when she returned in 2016, she was fresh and raring to go.
It was a brave decision from the then teenager, one that reaped rich rewards. While it may not be as easy for players ranked in the top 10 to go on a break as long, it certainly seems like a good start to recalibrate. Skip a few tournaments, switch off from tennis and find the spark that led you to the sport in the first place.
Andy Murray, in his column for BBC, wrote about how he discovered an appreciation of art during his injury layoff. A line he wrote stands out in this context.
“I realised art is something I should appreciate more. I think that happens with sport as well, when you try something new or you sit close to the pitch or court and watch it, you appreciate it more and just how difficult it is.
And sometimes, that is all it takes. Once the youngsters step away and come back, the pressure will be a hopefully be a privilege they learn to appreciate and not hate.