I’m using the word ‘predator’ here in a positive sense. Not all predatory acts are evil. Some flow purely out of self-belief and are appropriate to the circumstances. Conversely, I can’t begin to describe how important it is to believe in yourself. When that quality is lost, one becomes vulnerable to the predators of the world. And the world is filled with predators – some of whom are professional tennis players.
It takes a particular predatory mindset, for example, to take advantage of another player’s injury. I looked at the match between 20-year-old Lauren Davis and the clearly injured Victoria Azarenka at the 2014 Indian Wells tournament. And despite the 6-0 7-6 (2) score line, I concluded that Davis is a piss-poor predator.
A good predator would have won that match 6-0 6-0. Serena Williams would have won that match 6-0 6-0. Serena is a born predator. She shows no mercy. If you’re injured, that is your problem. She will stalk you and crush you. It takes an exquisitely developed sense of self-belief, as well as a non-empathetic kind of ruthlessness to be so single-minded as you kick someone in the teeth while they’re down.
I would have had faith in Lauren Davis’ ability to go far in tennis if she had demonstrated that predator capacity. After all, her opponent had made the foolish (and possibly greedy) decision to return to tennis long before her foot was ready. Azarenka also foolishly chose to continue playing instead of retiring.
Was she worried that writers like me would have once again accused her of being a fake-assed drama queen? In truth, this time around, I would not have. Azarenka was clearly hurting. And I sincerely hope that she decides to give herself enough time to recover before returning to tennis. A healthy and fit Azarenka is great for this sport. An injured Azarenka is nothing more than predator prey. Right Li Na?
And then there was the match between Nadal and Dolgopolov. The former is also a natural born predator, ruthless in his ability to eviscerate an opponent, single-minded in his focus on winning. In the third set, Dolgopolov was up 5-2, serving for the match. He had Nadal at his mercy. He had played a studied, focused, phenomenal game to get himself to the winner’s edge. And then he began to crumble. Yes he did end up winning that set 7-5, and he did win the match, but all I saw was a player who lacked the essential belief in himself that is the mark of true greatness.
Because, al fin y al cabo, there is a quality that all good predators possess, and that is the ability to believe in themselves despite the prevailing circumstances. Predators don’t get distracted. They sense weakness and they move in for the kill. They are decisive in victory, not just relieved that it's all over.
You know who I think has the making of a phenomenal predator? Roberto Bautista-Agut. He may be pint-sized but dude is fearless. I love his game. I love that he hits a different kind of ball than anyone else. I love that he does not allow himself to get intimidated by any opponent or ruffled by any circumstances. And I love that a Spaniard is kicking ass on all kinds of surfaces. It’s just a matter of time until he’s holding a trophy aloft.