Mentally, tennis is one of the most challenging sports. It is difficult to ignore the game, the attitude and tricks of the opponent, the climate, the public, the family and/or the pretty girls' eyes. How I lost my focus? A tentative answer with Fabrice Santoro, the eternal mental tormentor of Marat Safin.
Did you, at least once in your life, on the evening of defeat, use this expression: "I completely lost focus"? Is it almost like a verbal tic or does it really make sense?
How to tell? Why does player, at some point, when there's mistake by the umpire, a gross error, completely lose it? How can his words go that much beyond his thoughts? It’s simply because when you’re fully involved in a match, with such high concentration, it's very similar to sleeping. A deep sleep. It's just like a dream. Imagine: it’s the middle of the night, you’re fast asleep, it’s three o'clock in the morning and a guy taps on your shoulder or throws a bucket full of water in your face...
It feels like you've been there before...
Well, I’ve insulted the French referee Bruno Rebeuh once, after a refereeing error... I was 17 years old. In general, I have no regrets in the heat of the moment. It’s in the aftermath, when you get back to the hotel, with your room service, that you wake up and you see the guy: you realize that you were a bit stupid. Why such a reaction? There’s no rational explanation for this behaviour. At best, he did his job. At worst, he made a mistake...
In your book, you talk about playing a game for the sake of a girl seated in the stands. It's not about sport anymore really, is it?
(He cuts) No, wait, you've read my book? Damn, you're good... But there, it's not a negative event. When I speak of concentration, sleep and dream, at some point there, I'm the one who went towards this girl. When I compare a refereeing error to a bucket of water in the face, I didn't look for it. Here it's not the same. Here it's an eye contact, a smile, and almost an energy that you're looking for.
There must be a player, who, somehow, managed to make you lose it...
Tomas Berdych, once at Wimbledon (2006, Editor's note). I was full of hatred but I kept my composure. The context: I was playing the best match of my life on grass. I lost the first set, but won the second, then the third, and in the fourth, I have a break on him… A very strong position to be in. I'm about to serve and that idiot called the physio. I know that he was trying to confuse the issue.
What do you mean?
Come on! It was late in the evening and we were playing on one of the outer courts at Wimbledon. Result: the physio took three minutes to make his diagnosis, plus 3 minutes of care, plus the 10 minutes to get there, that's 16 minutes. It was 12 degrees in London. In short, he broke back and play was interrupted because of the dark. We came back the next morning and played the fifth set. And guess what?
He won the match...
Then at the press conference, he talked about his physical problems. He replied: "Well I had absolutely nothing wrong; it was just to piss him off." Like that, casually, just tough like that. We didn't shake hands or say "hello" for two years after that... He is not a good guy, that's it! It's the same with Djokovic. He looks like he's dying sometimes, as he seems to be so much in pain. But I know that 99.9% of the time, he has virtually nothing...
But why does he do that?
This is a very good question. It would be interesting to ask him: "But why are you doing this?" To bother him a little. I think he’s looking for an excuse in case of defeat. What is it? What is the goal? The number of times he calls the physio per game... And he has nothing whatsoever! Looking at the replays, you have the impression that the guy is going to die. That he has ten seconds left to live. It's upsetting, and you think: "But how stupid he is to do that."
Do you think that you were a mentally-strong player?
Yeah. In the important moments, I was more likely to get better than to break. I knew the size of my gas tank. Do you understand? Mental and physical are really connected. If you know you have a lot of gas left then you have a mind of steel.
Did you have a trick to stay focused on your match?
Yeah, I've always tried to see pictures, positive thoughts, of all kinds. The notion of pleasure is something that I always had in mind. I picked up a lot of energy from my clan: an eye contact, a nod, good vibes, exchanges... Why? I don’t have the diplomas to explain it... But I'm sure it can be explained!
The tennis court is also your workplace. Like an average office worker, you can sometimes be there all day. However, in an office, it’s possible to escape for a few minutes per day. We can even wander in our thoughts: thinking about our family, our friends, our shopping, our weekend... Do you think it’s comparable?
If you are thinking on whether you have forgotten your daughter’s textbook before taking her to school, then it's not necessarily a good sign! But of course, it happens, we are like everybody else...
Except that you, athletes, people pay to see you work...
This is a colossal difference! It's rare, eh, that people tell you, "Well I'm going to sit next to you and I'll pay to see you work." But we remain human beings, with our strengths, our weaknesses, our doubts, pressures, family problems, friends who disappear. But people who pay up 30 or 50 euros for a ticket to see you, they couldn't care less that Santoro has a sore throat or that he had a fight with his mom. They don't come for me to tell them about my problems. They come to forget theirs.
Otherwise, between us, how do you get Marat Safin to lose his focus?
Very often, he used have lost it before even entering the court. Alone, actually, because he had decided in his head that he couldn’t face someone like me. My style of play was unmanageable for him. He had a complex against me.
Have you ever discussed it together?
Yeah... One day, he came to Paris and he said: "Can you give me the keys to your apartment?" Surprised, I asked him why, and he answered: "Well, I'm the one who’s paid for it!”
Interview by Victor Le Grand