I settled in yesterday afternoon to watch the men’s tennis final of the U.S. Open, 34-year-old Novak Djokovic from Serbia vs. 25-year-old Daniil Medvedev of Russia.
It was going to be a historic day in tennis. Djokovic was on the cusp of completing the first grand slam in more than 50 years—winning all four of the major tennis tournaments in a calendar year. He’d already won the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon in 2021. He was also going for his 21st major tournament win overall, which would break the deadlock he had with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal of 20 major titles each.
He was gunning for history. He was ascending to the throne of the greatest tennis player of all time.
I’ve followed Djokovic’s career. Early on he was bested by his rivals, he threw temper tantrums on the court, he was never loved by fans the way he wanted to be. He began to train harder and hone his mental toughness to a deadly sharpness. He began dispatching opponents and soon caught up to Federer and Nadal.
I admire Djokovic not just for his tennis skills—at the uppermost level, all the players possess incredible skills—but for his mental fortitude. He seems by nature a very emotional person, but he had largely learned to channel his emotions into hitting winning shots when it mattered most. He demonstrated the capacity to perform under pressure like no other player before him. Sure, there are still occasional outbursts on the court—the racket smash or ball whack or verbal rant—but they seemed cathartic and to inspire him to better play. Multiple times in this tournament he lost the first set and then stormed back to take the next three and claim victory under the most intense pressure.
Djokovic had beaten Medvedev earlier in the year in three straight sets at the Australian Open final. I fully expected him to do the same and to win the grand slam and his 21st major.
Instead, he got crushed in straight sets. Medvedev won 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
I had so much faith in Djokovic’s mental toughness that despite the fact he was being dominated I still believed even in the third set he might mount a comeback to cement his name as the GOAT of his sport.
Instead, near the end of the match, while sitting in his chair during one of the changeovers, the cameras showed him crying into his towel.
It made me think of my own mental toughness—or lack of it at times. I want to be able to handle pressure—of writing, of setbacks, of expectations, of difficult things happening to those I love. I want my emotions to work to my benefit.
It doesn’t always happen.
No matter how mentally composed you are, sometimes you’re going to fail. The forces of antagonism are simply stronger than you that day. It happens to the all-time greats, so of course it’s going to happen to me. I break down. I get depressed. I get down on myself.
Just the day before I was playing a tennis match. My tennis friend and I had split the first two sets and it was now 5-5 in the third after I’d given up first a 3-0 lead and then a 5-3 lead. I was tired. I was drained. I’d already squandered several match points. I even thought: I don’t care if I win, I just want this to be over. I admonished myself for thinking that way, and yet there I was thinking that way.
I managed to pull out a 7-5 win in the last set. I’m not even sure how. It could just as easily have gone the other way. I can’t say it was my skill or mental toughness. You can be as mentally strong or composed as anyone, but that’s no guarantee. There are always things beyond your control.
I feel for Djokovic. He didn’t handle the pressure or play his best. Medvedev did, which was beyond Djokovic’s control.