Week 102 (11 - 18 September 2015)
The topic of athletes playing mind games can divide the opinions of even the most like-minded sports fans. At one extreme there are those who see it as the ugly side of sport and at the other extreme there are those who defend it as a legitimate tool to gain a psychological advantage over an opponent. As ever with divisive topics, most people’s views probably lie at different points along the scale.
Yet what most sports fans can agree on is when mind games – which can be defined as an attempt to undermine an opponent or official through words on or off the field of play – go too far and become bare-faced abuse of a fellow professional.
This week, veteran Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt ramped up the mind games towards Britain’s Andy Murray ahead of Australia’s Davis Cup semi-final tie with Britain, which started today.
Hewitt’s approach could be a case study in how to play subtle mind games – there was no malice in anything he said, quite the opposite, but he got his point across: that Murray is under extra pressure to live up to his formidable reputation with the match being played in front of Murray’s countrymen in Glasgow, Scotland.
Hewitt, who won the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002, said: "I think a lot of the pressure is on, obviously, Andy so whoever (from Australia’s team) gets the opportunity to take him on on day one has got nothing to lose, you can go out free swinging and play your game.
"I think Andy pretty much has got to win that match in a lot of ways so it's going to be a bigger rubber for them, I think, and these young boys are big match players as well.”
The 34-year-old added: "I have a great relationship with Andy, I know that he's been massive for the sport of tennis right across Great Britain and obviously the support that he gets coming back here to play in Scotland, he's very proud to be Scottish.”
Murray showed no negative effects of Hewitt’s mind games in his first singles match of the tie on Friday as he beat Thanasi Kokkinakis in straight sets. But the Scot has another match to come on Sunday – and Hewitt’s words may yet upset his rhythm, particularly if things don’t go to plan against Bernard Tomic.
Yet Hewitt’s words served an additional purpose for Australian tennis and the game at large. They were an example to Hewitt’s countryman, Nick Kyrgios, of how to engage in mind games in a palatable way.
Most tennis fans would agree that Kyrgios’s version of mind games is more akin to abuse of a fellow professional. At Wimbledon in June in a match against Richard Gasquet, Kyrgios, 20, argued with the umpire, threw his racket, swore, and refused to return his opponent’s serve. Two months later, Kyrgios decided to try and unnerve his opponent, Stan Wawrinka, by commenting on his personal life, leading Wawrinka to describe his comments as “disrespectful”, “unacceptable” and “beyond belief”.
Hewitt’s double-edged comments may or may not secure Australia a place in the 2015 Davis Cup final but they have certainly countered the recent negative PR for Australian sport – and given Nick Kyrgios a few pointers on how to be liked in tennis.