A veteran writer of many an American sport was dumbfounded. “I’ve never come across a more interesting athlete,” he told me. The reporter was referring to none other than tennis’ nerd in chief, Andrea Petkovic, who’s a bit smarter than your average baseliner. After all, the German is not only a social media wiz, she also writes about art, movies and literature. She casually refers to Greek tragedies and Shakespearean comedies and once told us that she likes to read a book in its original language, then likes to read it again in a second language – say English or German. She lost today to Simona Halep out on the fantastic new sunken stadium. The defeat came in part because midway through the match she wrecked her knee. Oh, and one other thing – Halep is No. 1 in the world.
While Petkovic is the No. 1 nerd in the tennis world, on the men’s tour there’s Novak Djokovic. He’s not an intellectual in the traditional sense. He’s not a prolific reader or, like Petkovic, a movie or art critic. But the Serb is a man of considerable ideas – a thinker and restless seeker who always seems to be on a quest (gluten-free or not). If there’s a Holy Grail in town, the man who studies with a Spanish spiritual guide, meditates every day, and travels to the edge of the Grand Canyon to reflect will be looking for it.
Of course, you needn’t be Einstein to get far in this game. Many say it’s better to just hit the ball. Pete Sampras said, “I’m just a tennis player, nothing less, nothing more.” Below is a little journalistic journey with two of the better minds on the circuit – nothing less, nothing more.
IT: The other day, Andrea, you quipped, “Everybody knows I’ve got a lot going on upstairs, a lot of thoughts.” Can you be too intellectual or have too much going on upstairs?
ANDREA PETKOVIC: There are two sides of it. On the court, it’s better to have as little thought as possible and try to be in the moment and find the zen-like state of mind. That’s the best on court. But off court my mind has helped me in tremendous ways because I was able to…analyze where I went wrong and what I could do better. A lot of thought can also help you if you manage to put in some structure and have people that guide you in a good direction.
So it’s [a] two-sided sword? Is that an expression? Double-edged. That’s what I was going for. I knew something sounded off. It was something with a sword and Middle Ages and a lot of knights.
IT: What was the one thing where your mind helped you most, and what about your self-talk out there on court during a long match. Do you ever drive yourself crazy?
AP: Everybody has the feelings every now and then that you want to be somebody else, for at least a day or so, just to get out of your own head. So I’ve had that feeling many times after bad losses or where my mind maybe got in the way. But I’m 30 now, which is very old for tennis but very young for life. So I feel like my experience helps me point my thoughts in the right direction and also cope with losses better and just try to…direct things in the right direction overall. It’s always up and down and it’s always a process, but I feel like I’m heading [in] the right direction, for at least now. Let’s see.
IT: What are you reading right now?
AP: I’m reading the biography of Barack Obama, which is super interesting, because it’s a really good biography. It just goes up until his presidency…What I find interesting is how he really was very pragmatic. People tend to see this persona the media made of him, but he was very pragmatic. He really worked on his weaknesses. And to begin with, he wasn’t that charismatic guy, but he worked on his skills.
I thought that was really interesting, that this is something you can actually learn…He had a few [skills] inside of him, but he really managed to learn and improve…[I] took it for granted that he was just this charismatic person that all of a sudden appeared and everybody loved him.
And I’m also reading a fiction book right now — I always read one non-fiction and one fiction. The fiction I’m reading is by Rick Moore…It’s [about] just one weekend in upstate New York, and I love it. It’s really good. It reminds me a lot of David Foster Wallace, so that’s really cool.
IT: If you were writing about your matches, how would you describe your French Open so far?
PETKOVIC: I would make a Greek tragedy out of it, or a dramady maybe. So far it’s going well, so why a tragedy? A comedy more, so far.
IT: You’ve been writing movie reviews. Is there a movie or two that somehow relates to sports? Or what touches you that you could talk about?
PETKOVIC: Well, I don’t want to be the pretentious ass here, like, always. But I don’t really watch sports movies. I like art house movies. I like the weird French “nouvelle vague” stuff that is really boring, [where] really pretty people look melancholy out of the window. And there’s always a triangle sort of thing. Nobody is happy, and somebody dies in the end. Those are the movies that I really like.
IT: If you could take a moment and talk about the story of the tournament – Rafa going for his eleventh title. As an elite athlete, what does that mean to you, his eleventh?
AP: It’s awesome. I don’t have one title, and he has 11 of these. So that gives you an idea…But this is such a blessing to be part of this sport, just to be a part of these legends. It may be Rafa or Roger or playing against somebody like Simona or being in the same locker room with Serena Williams and all these players. It’s just a blessing. I’m very thankful for that.
I appreciate and cherish every moment that I get because it’s not going to be a lot longer. I’m old now, I’m really old. Young for life; old for tennis. That’s my new motto.
‘WE ARE ALL HUMANS’ – NOVAK DJOKOVIC ON EMOTION, LEARNING, CHANGE AND THE NOT-SO-FINE CRAFT OF RACKET THROWING
Toni Nadal always insisted his nephew Rafa never throw his racket. Goran Ivanisevic once had to default out of a tourney because he’d broken all of his rackets. He later encouraged his protégé Mario Ancic to break his sticks. Even the oh-so-proper Roger Federer once cracked his racket in Miami.
On Thursday, at the end of a particularly frustrating set, Novak Djokovic slammed his racket with particular ferocity. It seemed to feel good and he played better afterwards. He explained the dynamic of racket throwing. “In these circumstances, sometimes emotions get the worst out of you or the best out of you, whatever you want to call it.
“At times in my career when I would scream or throw a racquet, it would kind of wake me up and help me free myself from the pressure that’s building throughout the match, but there are times when it doesn’t help. So it’s really hard to say what’s the right thing to do. I’m not proud of doing that…I don’t like doing that. But at times, it happens.”
When asked about the emotions of the game, Novak explained, “You go through a rainbow of emotions. Every possible…color of the rainbow, you go through it. From the most positive to most negative.
“Most of the athletes, especially [those] who are playing on the top level, go through that. You have the affirmations that help [you] to kind of stay positive…But it’s not possible to stay positive at all times. I still haven’t met the athlete…who’s always positive. You go through moments when you’re frustrated. You’re just pissed off with your game or with something else. We are all humans – we all go through these roller coasters.
“But at the end of the day, it’s something that makes you stronger, makes you understand yourself on various levels, and these are tools for self- improvement from a mental/emotional standpoint.”
Inside Tennis asked Novak, “From the get-go in your career, you faced a wide range of emotions, from being a small kid with a lot of pressure on you to the ups and downs of the tour. What emotions do you think you have learned the very most from, or have had the most impact on your career? And have there been particular matches you’ve learned from?
Novak replied, “You always learn more from losses than from wins – always. Because when you lose, it puts you in a state of mind where you’re just questioning, doubting. Everything that’s suppressed or has been not addressed is surfacing, when you lose a big match.
That’s when you have to deal with this kind of emotion and understand how you can get better, how you can balance everything that is happening inside so you can come out for the next challenge and learn from it and be better and strive to never really give up.
“You can’t control emotions…You can observe them, you can try to…avoid getting too much into situations which compromise your focus and composure, but you can’t control them. I don’t know if anyone can do that. If someone can do that, please tell me so I can speak to them [smiling]…I have a team of friends and experts…helping me on a daily basis, through conversations, through seeing things from a positive side. They motivate me to work and get better from every aspect of being, whether it’s emotional, mental, physical, technical. We talk a lot.
I always shared very intimate, close relationships with people that travel with me, that surround me, because I’ve always thought they are family. We travel so much, we spend so much time together, it’s hard to be distant.
It’s hard to pick a specific match that I’ve learned mostly from, but probably a couple of Roland Garros losses in the finals here, back-to-back [in 2014 and 2015], Nadal and Wawrinka, and then going to London and winning Wimbledon. Those matches when I lost here, that really hurt me deeply. I had to rebound.”
Novak was then asked whether he worries about all the changes he’s made. He replied, “I don’t worry. I follow my heart and gut, and I believe that decisions I make are the right ones, even though they don’t seem like the right ones to some people. But to me, they are the right ones at the time. At that moment I feel certain emotion towards something, and of course I’m trying to be rational and responsible.
“I don’t make decisions on every thought I have, but I do feel like evolving is something that’s natural – a natural process of every human being in our planet. So I try to strive and to evolve and to get better as a person and as a player. At the moment I’m not playing at the level I wish [to], but I understand that it’s a process that obviously takes time. And I’m trying to not give up and I’m trying to create the best out of this situation and the circumstances that I’m in.”