Gag Rule Tennis fans will have plenty to look forward to during the next fortnight at Wimbledon: strawberries, cream ... and their favorite players choking

June 20, 2004

She has a thunderous serve, exquisite ground strokes and a
thoroughly delightful personality. The reason you may know little
about Amelie Mauresmo is that she is in the neurological
equivalent of Chapter 11. When Wimbledon begins on Monday,
Mauresmo, a 24-year-old French femme, will be one of the top
seeds. If form holds, however, she will steal defeat from the
jaws of victory, collapsing like a bad souffle. On the matter of
slaying her mental demons, she concedes, "I still have work to
do."

Which puts her in good company. Just consider the recent French
Open. In the first round Slovakia's Lubomira Kurhajcova
squandered a 6-0, 5-0 advantage, and in the final round,
Argentina's Guillermo Coria held a 2-0 set lead over countryman
Gaston Gaudio before wilting under the weight of the occasion and
losing 8-6 in an adrenaline-addled fifth set. "To see that my
body let me down and my nerves let me down," said Coria, "I
wanted to come out of this...." Then he dissolved into tears.

For all the talk of how physically rigorous professional tennis
has become, the truth is that it has never been more mentally
taxing. "It's gotten brutal," says Jim Loehr, a prominent sports
psychologist. "There is so much parity that even the best players
know they can't come out flat or they'll lose. Every mental lapse
is punished severely." So, as unpredictably as the Wimbledon draw
may unfold, here's a sure bet at Ladbrokes: There will be no
shortage of epic meltdowns.

The failure to perform under pressure--choking, to use the
dirtiest word in the sports lexicon--afflicts all athletes, but
tennis players are particularly susceptible. There are no
teammates to help absorb the stress or the blame. There's no
clock to run out. No shifting to cruise control or laying up on a
par-5. Start to play conservatively, and your opponent will cram
the ball down your throat. "The thing about tennis," says John
McEnroe, "is that no matter what happens, you have to win the
last point."

And it's not just the pros who face choking hazards. Affixing
telemetry monitors to recreational players, Loehr noticed that
even hackers undergo massive physiological changes between deuce
and ad-in. Loehr recalls one 52-year-old developing a full atrial
flutter when the match tightened. Pressure triggers the release
of cortisol, a stress hormone that speeds up the heart and
increases the rate of breathing. When this occurs, muscles are
deprived of oxygen, causing them to tighten. Suddenly, the most
routine shots miss their targets, which only intensifies pressure
and, in turn, the biochemical changes--a "downward performance
cycle," the psychologists call it. "It's called choking for a
reason," says McEnroe. "Sometimes you really feel like you can
barely breathe."

While there's no cure, there are treatments. Many players
meditate before and during matches--one star practices low-grade
self-hypnosis, visualizing his negative thoughts as falling
leaves that land in a stream and then drift away. When tennis's
legion of "performance coaches" tell their charges to "stay in
the here and now," they are not just trafficking in Dr. Phil
psychobabble. "Anxiety stems from worrying about the past or
worrying about the future," says Michael Lardon, a San
Diego-based sports shrink. "You don't want your mind to drift."
The other key is to let instinct take over and resist
overthinking. A recent study in the American Journal of
Neuroradiology revealed that the golfers who hit the most
accurate shots had the least brain activity.
"Self-consciousness," says Lardon, "leads to compromised
performance."

Jana Novotna, the grand dame of choking, came within five points
of winning Wimbledon in 1993 before her inner circuitry simply
blew. With the championship on her racket, she couldn't keep the
ball in the court. She fell to the unflappable Steffi Graf and
was so distraught that, unforgettably, she cried on the Duchess
of Kent's shoulder at the trophy presentation. While Novotna
never mastered the self-Heimlich, she did suppress her gag
reflexes long enough to win Wimbledon in 1998. When the tension
is ratcheted highest these next two weeks, Mauresmo and her
jangly-nerved colleagues ought to recall Novotna's triumph on the
same courts and take a deep, cleansing breath.

--L. Jon Wertheim

COLOR PHOTO: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"Almonte turned a lot of heads. Now people will believe in him
instead of knocking him." --DANNY DELIVERS, PAGE 26

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)