What makes a top-level tennis player?

Words by Chris Bowers, Wednesday 30. August 2017

The decisions by Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka to end their 2017 seasons several months early, coupled with the injury problems suffered by Andy Murray, Milos Raonic and others, have created vacancies in the world’s top 10. So if these vacancies were being advertised as if they were employment opportunities, what qualities would be sought? Obviously talent and hard work are two of them, but as Chris Bowers explains, there’s a lot more to being a top player.

Applicants for the position of a top ten tennis player – especially those who want to stay in the job for more than a few months – should have the following attributes.


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This goes without saying, but it’s amazing how many players never quite justify their potential because they don’t work hard enough. It can be a dull and boring life at times, often characterised by the need to get up early to do gym work and other strengthening exercises in non-competition weeks, and while some top players manage to have a second interest, you have to be pretty single-minded to get to the top.

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Experts are still divided on exactly how much talent plays in top-level performance. The work of the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson and others suggests that 10,000 hours of purposeful practice (the word ‘purposeful’ is important, as practising the wrong thing at the wrong time can be a total waste of effort) is the key to getting to the top, but that practice has to be based on a minimum amount of talent that means the work put in actually delivers results.


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The physicality of modern tennis means the top players need to have a body that stands up to the pounding it takes on the tour. All the top players carry some little injury niggle, and it’s hard to know when to allow the body time to rest and when to play through the problems. But if a body breaks down too easily – either because of inherent weakness or because the player doesn’t do enough strengthening work – there’s a limit to how far that player will go.

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Because of the variable length of tennis matches, any top player has to have a relaxed attitude towards time. If you’re scheduled the third match at a major, the potential start time could be in a window of several hours. You could also plan for one time, then see the previous match go a set longer, have a bite to eat, and then find the previous match has suddenly ended on a retirement and you’re due on court in 10 minutes. Or you could be in need of sleep and then get woken at six in the morning to give an anti-doping urine sample. Players who can’t take this uncertainty in their stride don’t make it.

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Players can plan their tournament schedules, but they don’t know how they will do from one week to the next, so they may spend just two nights in one hotel and then 12 at the next, never sure when they can do their washing.

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Most of us make friends from people we mainly associate with, but what if most of those are trying to get the better of us? Do we close down and not make friends? Do we make friends and hope to be able to put friendship on hold if we have to play our friends? However one does it, it has to be managed if big matches are not to be lost mentally.

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If a player gets on a good run, there’s a surge of optimism that brings challenges, such as the strain on the body, no recovery time between tournaments, an increase in interest from the media, greater scrutiny from fellow players, and a build-up of ranking points that have to be defended the following year. Similarly a run of bad results can be seriously demoralising. Many players get so caught up in their current form that they can’t see either a way out or that they could ever fall from grace. The successful ones deal with everything as part of an average that they have to manage.

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Any player who gets close to the top ten will have had a surge in results, but then the body will rebel in some form. It’s how they deal with the injury setback that will determine how good they will actually be. Injuries can seem a terrible setback, but most only are if they’re either very serious (rare) or if the player doesn’t react properly to them. They normally require a form of ‘reset’, which can feel like starting all over again but is all part of the learning process.

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This is not absolutely essential, but players without a reasonable ability to speak English struggle on the global tennis tour.

This is why applicants who look good in their teens but haven’t shown these skills should be treated with immense caution.

Words by Chris Bowers, Wednesday 30. August 2017