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View Full Version : How Federer Can Improve His Mental Toughness


PatrickCohn
02-18-2009, 05:30 AM
Whatís a better mindset for Federer that will help him win again against Nadal after his demoralizing, heartfelt loses in the Australian Open? Iím revisiting the psychology of tennis lessons we learned from the Australian Open finals. The momentum shifts of a final match, such as Federer and Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open, are interesting to watch from a mental game perspective. As a mental game expert, I try to peer into the psychology and momentum of a match.

If you have read my articles at Sports Psychology for Tennis, you know I think Federer defeated himself with some faulty thinking in the fifth set during the Australian Open finals. After the match, he said the match should not have gone five sets. He also thinks that the better player does not always win because it comes down to momentum and who has the momentum at the end of the match. True, but can thinking his opponent has stole all the momentum be enough to cause him to tighten up in the final set?

You could see Federer tighten up in the fifth set and make more mental errors. Federer had 14 unforced errors in the final set compared to Nadalís two unforced errors. Did the pressure to win cause Federer to tighten up and make more errors in the final set? Yes, I think Federer choked the match away when Nadal grabbed some momentum in the match.

Hereís my mental game of tennis summary outlining why Nadal beat Federer (or why Federer beat himself!):


Federer has had a tough history with Nadal during the last year and it plays on his mind.
Federer thinks he has a big disadvantage against Nadalís lefty serve. Translation: I canít break him when I really need to get a break.
Federer thinks the best player does not always win if it goes to five sets. Translation: Even if Iím a better tennis player, thereís a chance I canít win this.
Others expect Federer to beat Nadal. Translation: This causes more pressure for Federer.
Federer thought (assumption on my part) he had to hit every first serve perfectly and score aces. This resulted in a first serve percentage of only 51% and six double-faults just at the wrong times. Translation: Going for winners on the first serve caused him to lose service games.


I do think Federer beat himself, especially in the final set. But I donít want to take anything away from Nadalís heroic performance. He played a great tactical and mentally tough match. Nadal could have folded earlier in the match when Federer had all the momentum, but he held strong.

How can Federer improve his mindset or mental game for future success against Nadal?

1. Focus on the future and not the past. Nadal leads Federer 13-6 head to head from 2004 to 2009. From 2008 to present, Nadal has won all five meetings. The last match Federer won was the semifinals of the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup. Federer has it in his head that he canít beat Nadal no matter how good he plays. He must approach each match without the history being a monkey on his back.

2. Practice more against lefty players. Federer thinks he has a big disadvantage against lefty players when it comes to his return of serve. He need to practice more with lefty players if thatís the case and find a way to turn this disadvantage into an advantage in his mind.

3. Play a functional match instead of a perfect looking match. Federer has perfect-looking, flowing groundstrokes, but perfect stokes does not win matches. Good (functional) strokes, good tactics, and mental toughness wins matches. He should play the shots that get the job done in the match rather than stick to what he thinks looks pretty or feels perfect to him.

4. Stop worrying about what others expect. Players sometimes adopt others expectations as their own and then feel pressure to play up to others expectations. This may be the case with Federer. I think he worries too much about what the public expects of him because of his number one status for several years.

5. Win with your best shots, not winners on every serve. This concept is similar to playing functional tennis instead of perfect tennis. When players think they must hit winners on every serve (be perfect) to win matches, this causes them to tighten up and over control their performance. I think a better goal for Federer would be to improve his first serve percentage against Nadal instead or try to hit aces every service.

One note here: I based this article on what I can observe in matches and what I read in the post-match interviews. If I could talk to Roger, Iím certain I would have a longer or more accurate picture of how his mental game of tennis may be holding him back and what changes would help.

What changes in Rogerís mental game would you suggest? Your comments are welcome.

Dr. Patrick Cohn
Sports Psychology for Tennis Players (http://www.sportspsychologytennis.com/)

jrod
02-18-2009, 05:38 AM
^^^ Well stated. What bothered me most about Federer's performance there was his apparent stubborness. For whatever reason, it seems he believes he should be able to execute a specific shot instead of investing a little effort to turn it into a higher percentage shot.

Case in point: return of serve. How many opportunities did he have to hit an aggressive return of serve off his FH instead of hitting a defensive BH?

It was stuff like this that was clearly obvious to everyone where he refused to adapt. I think this partly why some were suggesting he could use a coach...

Lotto
02-18-2009, 06:55 AM
Maybe you should give Roger a call Patrick?? Offer to help him out? I'm deadly serious like but there's probably not a chance you'd be able to get in touch with him........Do you think if he asked for your help though that you'd be able to help him?? :confused:

drakulie
02-18-2009, 07:13 AM
hmmmmm, perhaps he just needs a larger frame. :)

junbumkim
02-18-2009, 07:17 AM
What Federer said is true and part of what you think Federer think is true.

Nadal does have advantage b/c he's a lefty against other players as well, not only to Federer.

In a tennis match, momentum is significant, just like in any other sports. A lot of times, a better player can establish the momentum and keep it up w/o much trouble in 2 out 3 set matches. But in 3 out 5 set matches, it's much harder to remain focused and momentum can swing back and forth. And every player in top 30~50 are good enough to cause an upset against a top player when they have the momentum and play well.

In the Aussie Open, Federer had a momentum going into fifth set. And Federer probably didn't expect Nadal to come out and win his service game so easily. And he might have flustered him in the fifth set.

And, Federer does have a point in saying that it should not have gone to 5 sets b/c he did have so many break points and two sets he lost were in tie-breaks.

junbumkim
02-18-2009, 07:25 AM
Believe or not, these top players are extremely confident and secure about their play-ability. Without that kind of sense of confidence and security, they won't be ranked where they are. Even in the interviews, you can sense their sense of confidence, bordering on cockiness...

I think your proposal for Federer is accurate, but I already think he's already doing that -if he was like Safin, then he's probably in trouble.. If he was so weak mentally, he wouldn't have won US Open last year.

I think it's pretty premature and inaccurate to proclaim that Federer is mentally weak or does not possess the necessary mental toughness for a champion.

I think people are doing and thinking what they think Federer is thinking. I think Federer realizes that he can't dominate the tour like he did for the past 3~5 years. He realizes that he can't just go out and hit service winners or forehand winners left and right no matter how talented he is, and that he's going to have to slug it out in many many matches, which he has done very successfully.

Now Federer has shown that he's a human, and other players can beat him. It's the group of fan who think that Federer has problems not only in his physical game but in his mental game.

Puma
02-18-2009, 07:30 AM
I agree with most everything said here. Especially about the stubbornness.

It appears to me that he doesn't have a game plan. Nor does he have a plan b. Fed being just as human as all of us cannot help but be subjective, not objective. Thus, if he has no real plan, he has no way to measure his performance besides stats like winners/errors, % service etc. How can at this point he know what works and what does not? So, besides play out of his mind, how can he expect to increase his effectiveness? I also think that creating a plan would help protect him mentally from loads of self doubt he must be feeling since AO 09.

This is why I think he needs a coach! If he is the type that can no longer accept the opinions of a coach for whatever reason, then I think Fed is doomed against Nadal. Yeah, he might pull off a win or two in the next several years. But, he will NOT get to a level where he and Nadals matches can be called a rivalry.

Jay_The_Nomad
02-18-2009, 08:20 AM
They say you can't teach old dogs new tricks :-P

Mick
02-18-2009, 08:28 AM
1. Focus on the future and not the past

it's tough to focus on the future when you are playing a tight match against an opponent who has a winning a record against you. I think that's why federer cried. he figured he had done everything to try to beat nadal, yet he ended up losing the match again.

Sentinel
02-18-2009, 08:58 AM
I know we are not dissecting the AO final here, but is it possible that Federer went into the match thinking he had already won it, since Rafa would be too tired, so he went in casually. No mental preparation at all.

I sort of liken it to Bartoli and Henin, with Henin (imo) coming into the match thinking it would be a warmup session and suddenly its all going the other way.

Edit: yes, Mick, that was my immed gut feel, he cried because he had thrown all he had and still lost, it was like the end for him.

rubberduckies
02-18-2009, 10:05 AM
So it's Federer's fault that Nadal only made 2 unforced errors in the fifth set and dropped only 3 points on his serve? Federer was right that he shouldn't have been in a 5th set because Nadal should have closed it out in the 4th. Nadal wen 0/6 on breakpoint opportunities in that set. Fed didn't save those points. Nadal lost them with poor concentration. Nadal almost blew that final game having gone up 0-40 on Roger's serve. He shanked two easy 2nd-serve returns and made an unforced error to give Roger the deuce. Nadal is the one who needs to improve his mentality against Roger. Based on the quality of their tennis, Rafa should never let Roger push him to 5 sets on any surface.

Lotto
02-18-2009, 11:24 AM
So it's Federer's fault that Nadal only made 2 unforced errors in the fifth set and dropped only 3 points on his serve? Federer was right that he shouldn't have been in a 5th set because Nadal should have closed it out in the 4th. Nadal wen 0/6 on breakpoint opportunities in that set. Fed didn't save those points. Nadal lost them with poor concentration. Nadal almost blew that final game having gone up 0-40 on Roger's serve. He shanked two easy 2nd-serve returns and made an unforced error to give Roger the deuce. Nadal is the one who needs to improve his mentality against Roger. Based on the quality of their tennis, Rafa should never let Roger push him to 5 sets on any surface.


And the same can be said for Federer in the first and 3rd. He blew the first set after being up a break and he blew a 0-40 chance at 4-4 in the third and a 15-40 chance at 5-5 in the third. It swings both ways, so Federer was right, it shouldn't have gone to a 5th he should have won it in 3.......


And no, it's Federer's fault that he hit 14 unforced errors to 2 and sort of "tanked" the 5th set.

dennis10is
02-18-2009, 04:50 PM
Fed needs a new Man bag.

I could tell that Fed wasnt' 100 percent happy with his luggage at the OZ Open. This played havoc on his confidence. A man cannot have full access to his mojo if he feels that his bag is does not match.

Fed should drop Nike and wear something more haut couture.

Also, you can't get a decent haircut without droping 5 figures. 4 figures just won't do.

rubberduckies
02-19-2009, 12:36 AM
And the same can be said for Federer in the first and 3rd. He blew the first set after being up a break and he blew a 0-40 chance at 4-4 in the third and a 15-40 chance at 5-5 in the third. It swings both ways, so Federer was right, it shouldn't have gone to a 5th he should have won it in 3.......


And no, it's Federer's fault that he hit 14 unforced errors to 2 and sort of "tanked" the 5th set.

Dream on! When confronted with breakpoints, Rafa just decided to up his game. He hit ridiculous winners, the likes of which Federer could never hope to produce in a million years. All of Fed's breaks were gifted to him by Nadal through mental lapses and sympathy for an inferior opponent. The 5th set matched Nadal's talent against Federer's talent. 6-2 was the most likely outcome. Nadal said to himself after tanking the 4th that he must hold serve, so he did. Federer said the same to himself. The difference is that Nadal has the necessary talent to impose his will on the game. Federer lacks that level of talent and must make due with what little gifts he has. Without Verdasco, this woulda been a FO 2008 all over again for poor Roger.

Blake0
02-20-2009, 08:33 PM
i think federer needs to learn how to not hit the balls short on his backhand side against nadals high bouncing spin. He also needs a better plan against people who have a better backhand (for right handed players) or a forehand (for left handed players). Thats why he has a harder time against players like Nalbandian and especially Nadal because not only is Nadal's forehand the stronger side but it also bounces up really high crosscourt which is a higher percentage shot to hit then down the line, to federers weaker side, his backhand.

Lotto
02-22-2009, 07:07 AM
Dream on! When confronted with breakpoints, Rafa just decided to up his game. He hit ridiculous winners, the likes of which Federer could never hope to produce in a million years. All of Fed's breaks were gifted to him by Nadal through mental lapses and sympathy for an inferior opponent. The 5th set matched Nadal's talent against Federer's talent. 6-2 was the most likely outcome. Nadal said to himself after tanking the 4th that he must hold serve, so he did. Federer said the same to himself. The difference is that Nadal has the necessary talent to impose his will on the game. Federer lacks that level of talent and must make due with what little gifts he has. Without Verdasco, this woulda been a FO 2008 all over again for poor Roger.


You say I'm dreaming?? :p lol It sounds like in you're own little perfect Rafa world there where Rafa "chooses" when he wants to win games or sets and Roger Federer has "little talent" :rolleyes: