Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cilic vs. Querrey: The Psychology of a Heartbreaker


Wednesday's third and final match on Centre Court between Marin Cilic and Sam Querrey was a battle of lesser known players that turned out to be thrilling beyond expectations.

Search the globe far and wide and you'll not find a tennis venue that is either more daunting or more inspiring than Wimbledon's Centre Court. For two young players like Cilic and Querrey it is the sort of thing that causes heart palpitations. Idyllic and pristine, it ignites this almost other worldly electricity, for it is home to so much compelling history.

The passage of time in the tennis world has always been marked by the exploits of iconic legends of the game who have come of age on the hallowed grassy grounds that Cilic and Querrey, each for the first time in their promising careers, alighted upon with reverence.

The glorious cathedral of tennis that these two lanky phenoms went to work in, each with his sights set on the third round of the tournament, and possibly another chance to do it all over again, immediately became the setting for a brand of tennis warfare that was physical and spiritual; but most of all, as the match wound toward its conclusion in waning daylight, it was psychological.

But that shouldn't be a surprise. Psychology is the prevailing theme that runs through each and every tennis match. Sometimes it is implicit, camouflaged behind the prowess of the competitors, almost as if it didn't exist at all.

At other times, as in yesterdays struggle between these two boys desperately hungry to become men, psychology becomes as important as the techniques - topspin forehands, kick serves, footwork, or what have you - that these world class players seek to employ.

When 20-year-old Sam Querrey found himself up a set and leading 5-2 in the second set, there was a feeling that Querrey was driving a sports car off into the sunset - all he had to do was keep his foot on the accelerator and he'd reach his destination. Cilic at this point, seemed little more than an afterthought. A quiet objector that was soon to be forgotten.

But somewhere along the road, Querrey stopped to put the top down and fully enjoy his Wimbledon moment. Perhaps he felt that his work was done and he could just coast to victory. Perhaps he was tired and thought this was a perfect moment to take a breather. Whatever the reason, this was his big mistake; the psychological gaffe that led to the the unravelling of circumstances that he should have never had to face.

There is a certain instinct that the great ones have, call it a special ability to see the future, vision if you will. It is something that tells them to strangle the life out of a half-dead opponent, and to make sure that he breathes no more. True champions have this killer instinct, and that is why they can, at times, be boring to watch.

But Querrey, green as a summer squash and lacking the nerve to kill, seemed content to prolong the ride.

Instead of opening a vitally important internal dialogue with himself (the one where he convinces himself that this is the time for his best tennis, that he needs to pull out all the stops here, because blowing a 5-2 lead and a huge chance to put a stranglehold on a career changing upset on Wimbledon Centre Court is not what he has trained all these years for) he fell asleep at the wheel.

Querrey should have been saying to himself the following words: "Sam...you passed on a USC scholarship for this! You are kicking the snot out of this guy...choke him out and break his will...keep doing what you've been doing except now do it with more conviction...this match is yours!"

But Querrey had the top down. He's only 21 after all. The stereo was cranking, and he couldn't hear the thoughts. Maybe he didn't think them at all. Maybe this is why he's never, in spite of his atomic serve and triple-digit ground strokes, been past the fourth round of a major.

But here was his chance. And as Cilic scratched and clawed and found a way to force a 2nd set tiebreaker, and later as he won that tiebreaker, you could feel the Querrey vehicle start to decelerate.

The psychological advangage was clearly shifting hands.

Now Cilic, quiet as a mouse for the better part of two sets, suddenly realized that he had been near death, and that his opponent was nice enough to lack the stomach to put him out of his misery. Give a world class tennis player almost two hours, and he'll more than likely start to find his game. Cilic, world class striker that he is, must have felt like he was born again.

Emotions. Psychology. Tennis warfare. Boys trying to become men. Sweating it out on the most timeless, ageless stage known to tennis. What could be better?

After the two players traded sets beneath the balmy British sun, it became clear that both players were feeling that this could be their day. But neither seemed quite convinced.

As the fifth set began, a duality set in. Querrey finally did what he should have done in the second set when he held what was very close to being an insurmountable lead. He pulled the top down, gritted his teeth, and placed his foot firmly on the accelerator. He was near his destination and he played like a maniac.

After winning seventeen consecutive points on his serve, however, he still hadn't managed to gain an advantage on the scoreboard.

Cilic had no answer for Querrey's atomic serve. But he did have courage to keep fighting. He hung on to his serve, but it wasn't pretty. He couldn't seem to dial in his first serve, but he didn't let it phase him. Querrey, meanwhile, was cruising. If this were a race, Querrey would have already been at the finish line, waiting to shake hands with his opponent.

But you can't win a fifth set in tennis without a service break. No matter how superior Querrey looked compared to Cilic for the first nine games of the set, no matter how much faster his sports car was travelling, nothing was gained.

And when Querrey stepped up to serve in the tenth game, needing only to reproduce exactly what he had been doing in the last four games to prolong the match, everything was lost.

Tennis isn't about how good you are. It's about how you good you are when you need to be good. When Querrey absolutely needed to be good, he couldn't muster the form that had been with him all set. A double fault and some uncharacteristically nervous points later, he was still a boy on a man's stage. His final backhand sailed long and Cilic sank to his knees in celebration.

Grace under pressure and a killer instinct are the tools of men who have helped write the storied history of Wimbledon's past. Unfortunately for Querrey, he possessed neither.

Perhaps someday he will.

Sometimes the only way to learn to succeed is by being so painfully close to victory that the sting of falling short never leaves you.

In Querrey's case, we know he was so close. The question that remains, is how much it will sting.

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