Or, what makes a competitor stop competing?
I must declare right up front that I’m not a winner, or even a competitor. What little "success" I have achieved - ‘A’ Levels, degree - has come about because I put in a reasonable amount of work and happened to meet a fixed standard. Anything requiring politicking or competitive behaviour (or both) - such as winning stuff, getting on in the world, achieving promotion at work - is way outside of my competency. This doesn’t even upset me very much most of the time (except insofar as the world tells me I ought to want to win and I must be inadequate if I don’t).
So I can’t pretend to understand what goes on in the mind of a strong, successful competitor who apparently just stops competing in the space from one minute to the next.
I’m talking here, just for a change, about tennis player Juan Martín del Potro - ranked 6th in the world as of this week, but at the time ranked 7th - in his semi-final match against John Isner in the 1000-point Cincinnati Masters tournament. Delpo played pretty well and had Isner suitably outclassed, until the moment at 5-3 in the second set when he served for the match.
It’s relevant to note that Delpo had the sun badly in his eyes. He’d served adequately from that position a number of times already, but at this crucial moment he served a double fault, to the utter shock of everyone watching. From then on it was all downhill. It was almost like he mentally walked away, as if he just wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible and didn't mind if he had to lose to achieve that.
That's certainly how it looked to me, anyway, but as I said, I'm not competent to judge these things. So what really happened there?
Did he no longer want to win the match? It seems unlikely. You don’t get to number 6 in the world by not wanting to win.
Did he no longer think he could win? Again, unlikely. He’d beaten this very player only two weeks previously, in the final of a 500-point tournament in Washington DC.
Or did he suddenly think,
"Hold on, this isn’t some superstar Top Four player taking this serve to get into the final. This person serving for the match right here, right now, is me. And I’m not one of the top guys. I don’t belong in such a big final."
We’ll probably never know. And apparently Delpo did reach the final of the 1000-point Indian Wells tournament back in March, beating his good friend Novak Djokovic in the semi to do so.
But it was noticeable that in his after-match presser in Cincinnati, Delpo said on two separate occasions "I couldn’t close the match".
Not "I lost my focus". Not "he played better than me" (he admitted that Isner definitely did play better than him from that point on, but he didn’t give that as his reason for losing). Just, "I couldn’t close the match". Simple failure of execution rather than of ability. But why?
I haven’t been watching tennis very long this time round, but one thing I’ve noticed that Delpo says time and time and time again in interviews is "I’m not one of the top guys. I’m just behind the top guys and I need to keep working to improve, to be as good as them". This despite the fact that the composition of "the top guys" changes. Once they’re in the top 4, it almost seems that in Delpo’s mind they are automatically, immutably, better than him. He can only watch, aspire, admire, from below.
This is an attitude his coach, Franco Davín, has been trying to cure him of for at least four years.
What makes it very difficult for me to understand is that on his day Delpo is more than capable of playing like a boss. And he’s beaten all the top players, some of them back to back.
Is it that losing somehow plays better to Juan Martín’s inner narrative of himself as "behind" the top guys? Or what?
I have grown to love Delpo very much and I want to see him reach the very top of the game, but as someone commented the other day, "It’s impossible to watch a Del Potro match with tranquillity."