Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wawrinka, Federer, and the psychology of hunger

A reader tweets the following request: “Can you pls write an article about how Wawrinka choked vs. Federer. What kind of a psychology is that and what's behind it?” Great question. I could take it in so many directions.

I could perhaps re-visit the opportunity to clarify the psychological difference between choking and panicking – the former happening to players who know exactly what they want to do but can’t get past their heads in order to do it, and the latter occurring to inexperienced beginners who become overwhelmed by the situation. Clearly Wawrinka did not panic. He is much too talented and experienced for that. But I personally don’t think he choked either.

What happened I believe is that Federer came flying out of the blocks, so that by the time his countryman figured out what had hit him, it was already too late. I believe that Wawrinka’s loss was in part because of Federer’s brilliant and aggressive performance during that match. Sure this new aggressive Federer is going to shank some balls into the air. But guess what. So too did the former passive and patient Federer who tended at times to simply wait for his opponents to implode. That Federer is hopefully no more.

But this loss was not entirely about Federer’s aggressive play. It may also have been about Wawrinka’s mismanagement of his psychological hunger for greatness. And to explain this fully, I have to digress and talk about the possible influence of a single coach, common to both Federer and Wawrinka, at a remarkably similar stage of their development. I’m referring of course to the hunger stage.

The hunger stage is a purely psychological phase in which a player realizes that he or she is yearning for greatness and glory. Remember when Justine Henin took like one day off to get married and attend her honeymoon? Before you could say Carlos Rodriguez, Justine was out of her marital bed and back on the tennis court. That is the hunger stage. It is a stage of single-minded devotion to tennis. (Justine thought that she still had the hunger but, seven months after her return, she has given up for a second time.)

Which is not to deny Federer’s current hunger because it is still there.  But Federer’s 29-year-old hunger is very different from the avaricious ambition that drove him at age 19 to part ways with his beloved coach, Peter Carter, and sign on with fellow Swiss, Pete Lundgren. Having decided to commit himself seriously to a pro career, Federer astutely realized that the coach who had shaped his game in his formative years would not be the same coach to take him to further tennis glory. In came Lundgren.

It is my impression that above all, Lundgren’s strength seems to lie in his ability to take players at this moment of early hunger – of peak tennis lust if you will – and take them to higher heights. It may of course be that Lundgren is simply exploitative, that he simply capitalizes on signs that a player may be on the brink of greatness. As antisocial as this may be, it still speaks to a kind of incredible discernment.

First there was Marcelo Rios whom Lundgren coached to the top ten before they parted ways. (About their split Lundgren would comment that Rios “needed a psychologist more than a coach”.) Lundgren then picked up with Federer, whom he coached from 2000-2003, helping Federer to the top ten and his first Wimbledon win. Next Lundgren worked with the mercurial Marat Safin whom he coached into beating Federer at the 2005 Australian Open. But Safin would lose to Roger at Wimbledon that same year. In 2008, Lundgren then signed on with Marcos Bhagdatis. Was Bhagdatis ever more hungry than when he beat Safin at the Australian Open before losing to Hewitt in that amazing 4.5 hour match?

After parting with Bhagdatis, Lundgren then signed on with the then junior, Grigor Dimitrov, after the latter made a good showing at the 2009 ABN AMRO in Rotterdam. About Dimitrov, Lundgren would reportedly say, “he is better than Federer was at his age”.( It’s kind of sad that Lundgren’s definition of greatness remains the one that got away.) Unfortunately Dimitrov has since accomplished nothing to show this conviction to be true. He and Lundgren have since parted ways.

Now Lundgren has committed himself to working with Stanislas Wawrinka. There is no doubt that Wawrinka is hungry for tennis achievement. He said as much when he reportedly abandoned his wife and barely one-year-old daughter to pursue tennis glory. In December 2009, Wawrinka married Ilham Vuilloud, a Swiss television presenter and former fashion model; in their wedding photos she is heavily pregnant. Their daughter was born in February 2010. Less than a year later, Wawrinka has apparently decided that, at age 25, he only has five good years left in which to play tennis. So he split.

His choices reflect his searing hunger. And once again a coach named Pete Lundgren has signed on with a player at the very moment that he is experiencing this lust – never mind the cost to his wife and child. Which brings me to my final observations about that match. No, I do not believe that Wawrinka choked. Unless by choking you mean that he became overwhelmed by his hunger for tennis success. Because the problem with hunger is that you have to know how to regulate and control it. Giving in to it wildly, unquestioningly, as if there are never any consequences, is probably always going to be a mistake.