Andy has been away from the game for four years due to health issues, some of which required hip operations. At the time of his departure he had been World #1 for a while – as the big three faltered from various injuries themselves – and was a beloved national hero in Great Britain after having won the Olympic Gold in 2012, then Wimbledon itself the following year– prising the trophy away from much-beloved Federer in an epic final, and then one more time a couple of years later. He got knighted for all that – and rightly so given that he dwells in the hearts of so many of his fellow countrymen and women. All well and good, but:
Andy has a way of making nearly every match you watch him play in some sort of torturous ordeal, not just for himself but also his opponent and spectators. I had forgotten how much I dislike watching some of his matches. At some point in the match, he starts worriting about this and that, then he starts torturing himself, sometimes hitting himself on the head, but most of all shouting at himself and grimacing in hyper-expressive combinations of anger and grief. He suffers so. Generally, he is reluctant to take the lead, to take charge, to go on the attack, preferring rather to wear his opponent down with brilliant defensive play. He was the best returner of serve in the game, for example.
The ATPtour.com article I have up to remember the score has a Twitter headline embedded from Wimbledon.org: “Heart. Determination. Murray.” Hmm. Was it heart and determination that let him go from 5-0 up in the third set to losing it? No. He fumbled, faltered and then defaulted back to his seemingly favorite state of mind: anguish.
Now, if you don’t know, Murray suffered significant childhood trauma, not from bad parents – his mother still watches many of his matches and they appear very close – but from a lone gunman massacre at his school that rocked the minds and hearts of the entire country. He was not shot himself, being in a nearby classroom sheltering under a desk not even knowing what was taking place in the gym not far away, but he knew the killer and many of the children shot and killed, and given the event shook the entire country up for some time, no doubt it deeply effected those on the scene in the small town of Dunblane, Scotland for some time. Later his parents divorced – doubtless yet more trauma.
The little insight at the heart of this article is the speculation that perhaps the intensity experienced during these childhood traumas have given him emotional strengths he has drawn upon to become a world-class champion of tennis and Knight of the Realm no less. Let me explain:
Leaving aside any concerns involving the pain and suffering involved, more generally speaking we can say that any sort of trauma is highly intense on the experience scale both during and after – indeed in some cases that ‘after’ can last for the rest of one’s life. This intensity is like much higher than usual volume, taking things to a different level; or it’s like waking up in a bedroom with thirty foot high ceilings instead of the standard eight feet under which one fell asleep. Such experiences alter perspective and emotional range including the depth and scope of pressure and intensity one can later handle.
Top male tennis players both on and off the court have extraordinary levels of discipline, focus, strength, stamina, athleticism, will to win, grit, ability to shake off defeat, ability to seize opportunities to win, and perhaps most of all, the ability to raise the level of their game in the big moments making any significant victory possible. Such big moments are similar to trauma in that they are highly intense. Indeed, again leaving aside the suffering aspect, in terms of sheer intensity level a top-level semi-final or final is like three hours of steady trauma. These champions learn to stay in the moment in the midst of a storm of physical and mental challenges – in many ways similar to traumatic events. Yes, this is a controlled situation being a game with rules, but intensity-wise, it is up there.
That is why the veteran players have such an advantage over the younger ones who are not used to keeping their footing, let alone raising their game, during such tempests. Indeed, this is likely why Tsisipas lost the French Open to Djokovic after being up two sets: he couldn’t handle the excitement, the intensity, the thrill of basically having made his dream come true, defeating his boyhood idol at a Grand Slam and so on. Because of that excitement – or perhaps excess of relief after having seemingly achieved his goal – he lost his edge, his concentration, his poise, his grit even as Djokovic, a veteran champion who has mastered such dynamics, used the prospect of imminent loss as fuel to rocket his game to a higher level and ultimately prevail in a five set classic.
Will Tsisipas recover from the trauma of this shattering loss? Only time will tell. But if he does, he will have learned to channel its intensity into expanding his range of emotion and performance into playing at the higher levels of nerve and skill summoned by those inevitable big moments whose outcomes determine victory or defeat. So this trauma will either make him or break him, but in any case their after-effects will remain during whatever later unfolds in his life’s journey on and off the court.
Murray seems to have a homing pigeon’s tendency to return home, in his case to anguish, so that even when he is comfortably ahead like last night he finds a way to fuss and falter after which either he fights his way back to victory or he doesn’t. Of course he is rusty now so it remains to be seen how he does during the rest of this tournament, but meanwhile the emotional anguish on display last night reminded me of why I so often didn’t like watching him play: he not only brings himself into this state, he also then drags his opponent and audience along with him; it’s not fun, indeed it’s painful for the whole match becomes about Andy and his inner demons. But it seems that is is such pain that gets him going, pain whose intensity he then channels into raising his level of play. And it also seems that even when he manages to get into championship mode playing at a high level of intensity with focus, speed and determination, along with such intensity come resonating echoes of the earlier – and very painful – traumas as reflected in the extreme grimaces he is wont to make.
It is glorious that he can channel such pain into such excellent athletic performances and lifetime achievements, but more than a little sad and painful that he has to suffer so much in so doing.
Note: this sort of intense situation where inner and outer reality are blended into one overall experience zone is a type of realm as discussed earlier.