I’ve often wondered what keeps particular tennis players motivated. Motivation is one of those psychological characteristics that seems to remain dynamic throughout a tennis player’s sporting life. The level of motivation may change depending on the player’s stage of his of her career. It may wax and wane with the seasons and surface changes. It may be as ephemeral as the wind, or may endure and persist with the passage of time.
I was inspired to think about the question of motivation after reading a recent BBC article about Merlene Ottey. I can think of no better example of the type of motivation that persists and endures, like fine wine.
When Ottey was 40, she was accused of having bullied her way onto the Jamaica team to represent that country at the Sydney Olympics. Ottey had run fourth in the qualifying event and therefore should have been disqualified. So when the Jamaica Amateur Athletics Association (JAAA) made the bold decision to replace the much younger Peta-Gaye Dowdie with 40-year-old Ottey, a lot of people were displeased. The displeasure was expressed loudly and harshly. Ottey was criticized as an aging athlete who couldn’t let go. And when she ended up placing fourth in the 100m dash in Sydney, there was a lot of egg both on her face as well as on that of members of the JAAA who had supported her bid to represent Jamaica.
But of course all good stories always have an interesting twist. That race was won by Marion Jones who was subsequently stripped off all medals and incarcerated for illegal drug use. Ottey was therefore retroactively granted a bronze medal. So she did win after all. (Fellow Jamaican, Tayna Lawrence was promoted to silver and Greece’s Ekaterini Thanou was given the gold).
But Ottey was deeply hurt by what she perceived as her home country’s lack of supportiveness of her continued motivation to race. In a 2005 article in the Jamaican Observer, she is quoted as saying: “After Sydney I said I wasn't going to run another race for Jamaica ... because I felt like the Jamaicans were trying to push me out of the sport and I really needed to prove my point, that I might be 40 but I can still run.”
Apparently Ottey still feels this way at age 50. She plans to race at the European Championships next week. Since 1998 she has worked with a Slovenian coach, but in 2002, she gave up her Jamaican citizenship and became a Slovenian citizen as well. She continues to represent her new country in international events. And she will be a member of its 4 X 100m relay team at the European Championships races.
How to explain that kind of motivation? How is it that some sports men and women have the courage to just keep going, while others start flaming out the minute they start making a little bit of money? Notice that I am choosing not to address the issue of sexism in the Ottey story. And in part this is because I think that ageism is the larger issue. Aging sports men also face cries for their retirement. A lot of folks were irritated by Brett Le Favre not because he lacks ability but because they think that at his age, he should be staying home and helping his wife. It’s as if we think that athletes should have a ‘use by’ date, and when they stick around past this date, we don’t know what to do with them. I’ve written about this before in an entry I called “Defending Mrs. Davenport”. I’m writing about it again, but not from the ageist angle, but to address the question of motivation.
Ottey may have been my starting point but tennis is always my destination. And of course I am particularly thinking of Federer as I watch his gentle slide down the ranks. Having failed to defend both his French Open and Wimbledon points, he is now ranked # 3, right behind Novak Djokovic. That must hurt. If he fails to defend his US open points, he may slide past Andy Murray and Robin Söderling on his way down. The very thought of that must gall.
But doing something about this requires the kind of motivation that I have to objectively wonder if Federer still has. He recently tweeted about celebrating his twins first birthday. That is wonderful. But how compatible is Daddy Federer with the ambitious tennis champ who has broken Sampras’ record for the most number of Slam wins? And how motivated is he to still achieve more?