The 2019 Championship at Wimbledon served up a startling contrast in personality. The Gentlemen’s Singles Finals pitted the number two seed Roger Federer against number one-seeded Novak Djokovic in front of a sold-out crowd which included Kate Middleton, Prince William, David Beckham, Kate Beckinsale, Stanley Tucci, Jude Law and Eric Bana.
At the conclusion of this five-set, five-hour marathon, television commentator John McEnroe described it as the greatest tennis match he has ever witnessed and Novak Djokovic described the experience as the most mentally grueling match he has ever played. Anyone who watched this match knew that it was two against one with the tag-team of the crowd and Roger fighting Djokovic all by his lonesome.
It is clear why the crowd favored Roger so much. His age (37), his finesse, his good looks, the way they dress him, his reputation as a class act, the way he moves like a cat, or maybe the fact that he is from Switzerland and speaks English, French and German fluently, gives him an enormous likability factor.
This polish and charm translates into huge endorsement contracts for him, which includes the recently-signed contract with Japanese apparel giant Uniqlo for $300 million. Federers’ image brings him over $65 million in endorsement dollars yearly, fully five times more than he earns in prize money.
And on the other side of the net in the Men’s Singles Finals was the “Un-Federer” and crowd-unfriendly Novak Djokovic. The Serbian was fully aware that he would have to face a hostile crowd and spent months leading up to the match visualizing the boos and figuring out ways to ignore them. He remarked that he used a technique called “transmutation,” where he would train himself to hear “Novak, Novak, Novak” when the crowd was shouting “Roger, Roger, Roger!”
Novak earns about half the endorsement dollars compared to Federer and this, in all likelihood, is based upon his perceived personality and overly acerbic, sardonic and disconnected from the fans. He is obviously bright and does try to manage to display a sense of humor, but it often comes across as too biting.
In the world of big-time tennis, a likable personality adds up to crowd support and large endorsement dollars, but most amateur players rarely play in front of big crowds and never earn significant endorsement dollars, so one could argue that personality in amateur tennis means nothing. But that would not be true at all and here’s why.
1. Friendly body language: If you manage to display friendliness when under pressure, remain upbeat when behind and calm after a missed point or bad call, this sends a strong non-verbal message to your opponent that you are confident and relaxed and therefore expect to win. I have observed countless head-to-head matches in tennis and golf, and there is a palpable force that is felt from the player who is calm and relaxed. It says: “I’m calm and you’re not.”
2. Coaches and recruitment time: One of the key issues that college coaches are looking for is a player and a family who will be calm, friendly and easy to work with. College couches always have their hands full with endless petty team dynamics and jealousies and will avoid like the plague any player who presents with personality problems no matter how much talent they have.
3. Social acceptance: Amateur tennis, especially at country clubs, is largely a social affair and the players want to feel at ease and have fun so if you present with too much aggression, competitiveness and anger, over time, you will wind up alone with no one to play with. This is one of the great challenges of amateur tennis because we all want to win and in order to win, one must tap into aggression. But since the game is largely social and not really related to money, one must figure out how to manage both. How to combine the powerful will to win with social grace.
One idea is to observe the professional players who do show both charm, self-control and manners, but still have the will to win. The two best examples of this would be Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer. When they were young players, they both had fiery tempers, would throw rackets and scream. In both cases, they were disciplined by parents who took away their tennis for a long period in order to teach them a lesson. And in both cases, it worked. They learned how to internalize their anger and not to show it while playing. This was also what Tiger Woods’ mother did when he was young and showed temper tantrums when playing golf.
Competitive sports are so enjoyable because they bring us emotions like anxiety, anger, shame, disappointment, pride and meaning. These are the reasons we play the games we do. And one of the many things one must master is controlling these emotional states. The way we deal with them defines our personality. For the pro, that translates into applause and endorsement deals. For the amateur, that translates into more social acceptance, more scholarship money and more wins as you master the art of body language.