NAOMI OSAKA was cruising to a third-round victory in her title defence at the US Open tennis tournament on September 4th. After winning her first set against Leylah Fernandez, ranked 73rd in the world, she broke serve to go up 6-5 in the second set, leaving her one game short of advancing. But she blew an easy shot, botched the next point as well, hurled her racquet twice during a tiebreaker and lost the match.
Ms Osaka’s collapse, which followed a defeat at the Olympics in her native Japan, set off a round of naysaying about her resilience. Yet the way her fortunes turned at the US Open, with one mistake begetting another, turns out to be common. A recent paper by David Harris, Samuel Vine and Mark Wilson of the University of Exeter and Michael Eysenck of Royal Holloway University of London finds that top-tier tennis players are surprisingly prone to mistakes caused by situation-driven anxiety—implying that this tendency may be too fundamental for coaching to cure it.
The taxonomy of shots in tennis helps to isolate the impacts of consistency and risk appetite. When a player misses a routine shot and loses a point, it is scored as an “unforced error” (UE). Conversely, shots that bounce within the court without being touched by an opponent are “winners”.
The study analysed the rates of both UEs and winners among nearly 400,000 points from tennis’s four leading events in 2016-19. In high-pressure contexts such as break and set points, UEs were 15% more common than under less stressful conditions. Similarly, during points following UEs, the chances of a repeat blunder rose sharply. These effects reinforced each other, so that UEs were even more common during high-pressure points following a prior UE than you would otherwise expect.
Moreover, UEs’ habit of bunching together narrowed the performance gap between players. Logically, players who went on to win matches had a lower UE rate than their rivals did. But this disparity shrank from three percentage points overall to two following UEs. Under high pressure after UEs, it dwindled from seven points to four.
The rate of winners was unchanged by pressure. It did rise after UEs, implying that players may try to make up for mistakes by putting away the next point decisively. Nonetheless, the gap in winner-to-UE ratios between matches’ eventual victors and losers was smaller on points after UEs than in other contexts. The authors argue that UEs raise awareness of the risk of failure. This could expose players who go on to win matches to the mental state felt more often by losers, causing hiccups in their play.
The paper bolsters a growing body of research on athletes’ psychological vulnerabilities. Other studies have found that basketball players’ free-throw percentage dips in the final minutes of close games, and that golfers are more likely to miss putts that have an unusually large impact on prize money. Athletes are often hailed as exemplars of mental toughness. But for everyone else who occasionally succumbs to anxiety, it may be reassuring to know that you are in good company.■
Source: “Psychological pressure and compounded errors during elite-level tennis”, by D. J. Harris et al., Psychology of Sport & Exercise
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “All too human”