On Court Communication

Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic landing of US Airways 1549 into safety with no victims on the Hudson river last year was largely credited to his great communication skills with the entire flight staff. He was modest when he said he just did what they’d been trained to do. But in addition to his command of the aircraft, he had good command of the crew via communicating them through the intense moments of their descent into the river. Had he not communicated well, the outcome might have been much more sinister.

Tennis players are not facing such crucial decisions during a game and people’s lives certainly are not determined by the outcome of a match. But the amount of on court communication a player has to deal with is hardly given enough credit.

I get self conscious playing tennis in the park, when there are two people sitting on a bench watching us play. And more likely, waiting for us to finish than really watching. But the stuff they might say and comments they might make could really mess up my game.

I think about what professional tennis players have to deal with when they’re playing in front of a 24,000 people crowd on Arthur Ashe stadium. Can you tell 24,000 people to shut up?

But the crowd is only one of the elements of on court communication. Here are some of the other ones:

– 1 umpire
– 8 linesmen
– 6 ball boys
– 1 opponent (if playing singles)
– 2 opponents and 1 partner (if playing doubles)
– photographers
– journalists
– fan booth and relatives
– spouse
– coach
– physical trainer
– tournament trainer
– TV greeter before the match
– TV reporter after the match
– and of course, the player himself

Whereas communication is not always verbal, all of the above points demand eye contact and interaction, or at least attention. Best case scenario, the crowd loves you and the umpire is your childhood friend and there are no questionable calls or annoying people in the crowd, yelling things out before between serves. In all other scenarios, tennis players engage one way or another in some form of communication with all of those people.

And, of course, they have to play some tennis meanwhile.

Do Ball Boys Matter?

Goran Ivanišević once said he fights 3 battles when gets on the tennis court – one with the opponent, one with the umpire and one with the ball boys.

The ball boys? The kids that run around the court to fetch your tennis balls so you can save your breath? How could they be a reason for frustration? And since tennis is a very mental game, such frustration could cost the tennis player precious concentration moments.

As the game has become so much more physical and demanding, balls get worn out not only quicker but also differently and their bounce can change only after a few games. Over the years players have become increasingly picky about which ball they use for their first or second serve. We’ve seen Djokovic study them one by one before he makes up his mind. Gasquet on the other hand would insist on using the same ball if he just won a point with it. And, the ball boys are already “trained” to return that same ball to him.

I’m not sure how much of this is superstition and how much is logical, but one way or another, it probably pays to know how to communicate with the ball boys.

Both Federer and McEnroe worked as ball boys when they were kids. Not only did they display sheer passion for the sport (these are often volunteer roles), but also they watched the pros and their behavior from the best possible seats in the stadium. They’ve seen ball from the best angles and studied tennis players’ game and shot making in real time.

Having such ball boy experience on your résumé makes you familiar with the whole ball retrieving ritual, but more importantly builds some ball boy “vocabulary” and awareness. Now Federer personally greets the ball boys and other staff on the court before he starts the match. Is that a merely a gesture of politeness and general courtesy he’s naturally known for, or does he just want to get on their good side?

Given the amount of communication that happens on the tennis court, both verbal and non-verbal, I think the ball boys and how the players work with them might indeed affect their game.