Over the next two weeks, thousands of fans will flock to Flushing Meadows to watch their favorite tennis players at the U.S. Open. If you’re in the crowd, you might be tempted to glance down at your phone or grab a snack during breaks of play, but resist the urge—especially during changeovers.
The 90-second break after odd-numbered games offers players a chance to rest and reset. It also gives fans a unique look at how the world’s best approach the mental side of competition.
No two players take an identical approach to the changeover. If you’ve watched enough tennis, you’ll notice certain rituals, like Rafael Nadal’s insistence on placing his bottles of water and his recovery drink in a specific order. Then there are the viral moments, like Gael Monfils sipping a can of Coke or Serena Williams ordering an espresso. And then there’s the ugly: The changeover is an ideal time for racket smashing. But perhaps more than anything, the changeover offers players a chance to reboot, both physically and mentally.
“Whether you’re winning and trying to close a match out or losing and trying to find a way back in, you’re just trying your best to stay calm and stay in the moment and try and use your mind and make sure your body is in the right place,” Steve Johnson, the world No. 46, told me at a pre-U.S. Open ASICS event with fellow pros David Goffin and Julia Goerges.
How players behave during changeovers—their quirks, tics and customs—is easily observable. But what do they actually think about in the chair? For World No. 14 Goffin, the most important part of a changeover is to relax while also maintaining focus. It can be a challenge, especially after a poor run of play.
“Even if sometimes I’m not happy with the way I’m playing the game before, during the changeover I have to stay calm,” Goffin, currently ranked No. 14, says. “Otherwise the next game will be worse.”
Adds Goerges, the world No. 33: “Sometimes I don’t think anything. You really just try to calm down a little bit, take a deep breath, and really just get everything together. You try to avoid to obviously think about situations which haven’t gone your way.”
Players also, of course, use the break to consider how to approach the next game. American Steve Johnson says he thinks about how to keep or change the momentum of a match. But he and other pros ultimately want to avoid overthinking strategy. Once, in an effort to clear his mind, Jim Courier once read a chapter from the novel Maybe the Moon after losing the opening set of a 1993 ATP Championships match against Andrei Medvedev.
The changeover is also an odd role reversal: For 90 seconds every two games, players get a chance to watch the fans.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about something else,” Goffin says. “Sometimes when I need to relax, I just watch in the stands how people are enjoying the tennis or what they are eating.”
How professionals treat the changeover can be instructive even for amateur tennis players. Even if casual players aren’t taking formal breaks every two games, taking a moment to decompress is invaluable for those at any level.
During changeovers at the U.S. Open, at least on the bigger courts, the public address plays loud music. The crowd buzzes with conversation. Fans dance, especially as deliriousness sets in after dark. The atmosphere isn’t ideal for achieving a zen-like concentration. Still, the best players are mostly unshakable in their focus—with a few exceptions.
“If there is a kiss cam on the screen,” Goffin says, “of course I’m going to watch it.”