The mental element

The mental game is the entire game. The physical is only an extension of what you're capable of doing mentally... mental toughness and the power of your mind is just really unbelievable.

- Phil Davis, mixed martial arts

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

I was 2-5 0-30 down on my serve.

My arm was fatigued from the rigours of the previous sets and my legs felt sluggish.

Usually reliable, my serve had deserted me while my opponent was sailing through his games.

The sun, gradually becoming more intense, added to the perspiration and exhaustion that I was experiencing.

I was ready to throw in the towel, dab rackets at the net and end my misery.

In my mind, the set was lost. I told myself, "Just go for shots. At this point, cannot play defensively. There's always next time. Learn from this!"

I angled a wide serve in the deuce court to his forehand which, thankfully, went in. He just about got to it and looped a high return back down the line. Recalling the sagely advice that I had just given myself, I stepped into the court, took the ball on the full (meaning that I didn't let it bounce) and hit a hard driving two-handed backhand. If I was to go down, I would go down swinging!

I am no Nadal; he is just my favourite player by a mile! 😄 The photo is purely to show how a driving two-handed lefty backhand might look!

Here's the deal - my natural stroke is a single-handed backhand and I truly cannot recall the last time I attempted a driving two-handed backhand. In that split second, I instinctively put my left hand on the racket to give the stroke more power and, hopefully, more control.

The stroke was pure and whizzed past my flummoxed opponent. I was equally shocked that it went in.

2-5 15-30. Still quite a bleak score line.

I continued to aggressively go for my shots off both flanks and, lo and behold, won the next 3 points.


My opponent looked a bit rattled. He still had the advantage but would now have to serve for the set.

On the other hand, the way I was able to fight back in the previous game gave me a new lease of life. I was still physically tired but mentally more engaged. I fought for each point and broke his serve to make it 4-5.

"Okay. Back in it. Get the ball in and play carefully. Tone it down. You've done the hard work to get back on serve."

100% terrible advice. The complete opposite of what had got me from 2-5 0-30 to 4-5 in the first place.

I promptly lost the first point when I hit a short tentative forehand up the middle of the court that my opponent absolutely murdered cross-court. Upset with myself, a double fault followed.

4-5 0-30. Back to where I was 2 games ago - 2 points from losing the set.

"You fool! Stop playing tentatively! Swing through the ball! What's the worst that can happen? The score and points don't matter. Get that into your head!"

A lengthy rally followed in which neither of us gave the other an inch. Eventually, my opponent gained the upper hand with a well-placed forehand down the line that I had to scamper just to reach. Again, I was faced with having to make a split-second decision. With hardly any backswing, I brushed an angled cross-court backhand that caught the line and bounced out of his reach.

4-5 15-30.

"You saw what happened the last time you tried defensive tactics, right? Forget the score. Just keep going for your shots."

After a struggle that involved saving a set point as well, the score was 5-5.

About 10 minutes later, the set was in my pocket 7-5.

While being physically beat, I was acutely aware of how the set had ebbed and flowed and the singular role that the mental element had played in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. I knew I wanted to write about it and that's how this post was born!

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

I am going to shift tracks here...

On reaching the courts, I complete a stretch routine that my former coaches have hardwired into me. Thereafter, my friend and I rally for about 10 minutes before starting a set. (I just realised how the same person was a 'friend' in the previous sentence when rallying while an 'opponent' in the segment above when playing a set! 😄)

During those rallies, I freely go for shots. I use the time to experiment with different strokes and grips - the results of which are comical at times with the ball either crashing into the net or sailing miles away from where my mind had visualised it going! 😅

Recently, there was a day when we rallied for 90 minutes straight (with a couple of water breaks thrown in) without playing a set and both of us found that to be rather tiring! We were hitting the ball hard and clean and had worked ourselves into a fine rhythm. It was liberating to not have a ticking score at the back of my mind and my goal is to eventually be able to get into this zone of confidence and play with such abandon during matches too.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Clearly, the effect that playing a set and keeping score has on my game is palpable. Frankly, I wish it didn't have this effect! After all, these matches carry zero stakes and the outcomes don't matter. Unfortunately, I have this propensity towards a defensive style of play, towards playing not to lose rather than to win when there's a scoreboard - something which I'm slowly trying to overcome through the mental berating sessions I have with myself on court! 😂

This goes straight back to Phil Davis' quote - it truly is all in the mind. If I don't train my mind to focus on the actual physical act of playing each ball on its merit and to block out the mental pressure contributed by the scoreboard, my game will be a muddled mess. With age comes maturity and self-awareness; now, I keenly observe these nuances about my game that escaped my eye when I played during my school and college days.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

The mental part is the hardest part, and I think that’s the part that separates the good players from the great players.

- Michael Jordan, basketball

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Tailpiece: After a 10-year hiatus, I set foot on the court earlier this January. I had played some badminton and a ton of table tennis during this time which, I was sure, had ruined my tennis strokes! 😂 Nestled in my hand, the weight of the racquet and the cushioned grip felt simultaneously familiar and alien. The guts striking the fuzzy ball, the sound accompanying that impact and the pulsating vibration up my arm... I didn't realise how much I had missed all this! Hitting that first shot felt like reconnecting with an old friend - exciting, strange, surreal and a bit dissonant all rolled into one! 🎾 Muscle memory is wonderful! My body simply "remembered" what to do - how to move my feet and arms in conjunction to strike a forehand, how to toss the ball and arch my back to hit a serve, how to make changes in the grip when switching between forehand and backhand, how to hit a delicate drop volley... Within 2-3 weeks of playing, I was able to shake off most of the rust! I was convinced that I needed to keep tennis a consistent part of my life for as long as possible. The game has taught (and continues to teach) me a lot and enriches my life in a way that other personal and professional pursuits do not. 😀


  1. I loved reading this, mostly because I love tennis, and Nadal! This is a great example of mind vs body; and I have felt it in my experience as well. There have been a lot of moments when I feel like I cannot run 10km at about the 5km mark, but the more I distract my brain and zone into a podcast or some music, it's amazing how I sometimes go well past the 10km mark and I didn't even realize that happened. This was a personal realization of sometimes your physical state is not what governs your full capability/capacity; and you can actively exploit this aspect to push the boundaries.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kartik.

      What you've described sounds a lot like the "second wind" that athletes get after they cross a particular threshold. :-) I have experienced this while cycling where, after a certain point, I can eat up the kilometres steadily without even realising it!

      Really like your observation about using this mental aspect to push our boundaries since it isn't always just the physical.

  2. I miss playing football. I started playing football when i was in 5th grade. The amazing art of steering the ball to the goal fascinated me. I played football for four years but could never make it into the school football team. Will i ever get to play football again.... This happens to all of us, we hardly spare time for our passion. Thanks, for this amazing article reminding of my passion.

    1. It's evident that the post made you fondly recall your love for football. :-)

      In my view, not being able to make it into the school team shouldn't affect your passion for the game in the long run. Sure, it doesn't feel good to try and then fail to make the team but getting over that is important. Years have passed now; you can consider finding friends/colleagues, booking an arena and playing for the fun of it now! Maybe, this post can be the start of you rediscovering your passion for football instead of simply reminding you of it! :-)

  3. The most difficult part of the mental process is the total abandonment of all thought as the ball moves toward you.

    Any movement in thought, which takes you away from the moment can only have a negative effect.

    This is what focus is. As much as it is about channelising one’s senses towards the object of focus, it is equally about shutting off all the background noise. In fact, to me it is more so about the later.

    The penetrating power of concentration can truly give one superpowers.

    Good luck with learning and playing. Always a good combination!

    1. I wouldn't say a total abandonment of all thought! It's more like the abandonment of extraneous thought (or, like you wrote, background noise) so that the mind can process the bare essentials required to hit the perfect stroke.

      Any other distractions or stray thoughts not connected to the immediate act of hitting the stroke is unwanted.

      Yes! Learning and playing, going hand in hand, is truly beautiful. :-)

  4. Loved reading this article! I realise how mental fortitude plays out differently in each person. To me, the scoreboard makes me double my focus. I'm not a defensive player - when the score line is stacked against me, I look it at more often and approach the next shot with renewed aggression. If I'm down, my brain sifts through memories of achieving the impossible and plays a fleeting reel that it deems fit - 'Oh, you're feeling down. May I interest you in a Djokovic vs Tsitsipas memory from 2021 French Open, along with Dragonball Z's theme song?' Even during a warm up, there's an implicit score in my mind - the number of shots in our rally or the number of minutes we've played continuously.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      At 2-5 0-30, I was aware of the score for sure. Maybe, because I told myself that the set is all but lost, I was able to just "focus" on the shot at hand and that's why it came out good? Would that count as doubling/intensifying of focus? I don't know...

      Also, for me, the scoreboard doesn't seem to have much impact when it is 1-1, 2-1, 3-2 and so on - it's impact is more visible on game/break points within games or at set points when the consequences of winning/losing the point are higher.

      Loved your point about sifting through memories of achieving the impossible! In fact, thanks to detailing out this post, whenever I am 5-something down in the future, I will try to draw on these memories; hopefully, that doesn't add yet another distracting element and make me tentative! :P

      P.S. - the Dragonball Z theme song... that brings back nostalgia... :-)


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