By James Beale, University of East London
Between 2003 and 2022 there have only been four men’s singles winners of Wimbledon. You need to go back to 2002 when Australian Lleyton Hewitt won the title to find a name other than the “big four” – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal. But on Sunday 20-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz broke that pattern when he beat Djokovic in a five-set thriller to win the title.
It was a surprise win. The dominance of the top four players has led to an expectation that, at Grand Slams, one of them would end up on top. Within forensic psychology there is a cliché – “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.” Psychological research backs this phenomenon, whereby we expect the past to repeat itself.
I would argue that this excludes people that are going to do things for the very first time – Alcaraz’s Wimbledon win was his first grass court Grand Slam victory. Carlos Alcaraz was beaten by Djokovic at the French Open in June. He reported that it was overwhelming to play against his hero.
However, perhaps that loss was perceived differently by Alcaraz compared to players that are of the same generation as Djokovic. Alcaraz seemed to use the loss as a mechanism to enhance his performance in any rematch, rather than allowing it to set a precedent for future matches.
Alcaraz is 16 years younger than Djokovic. Throughout his career, he has observed the dominance of the “big four” and has presumably learned from them. As a sport psychologist, I think Alcaraz has a growth mindset – this is where someone believes that their attainment is influenced by hard work, good strategy and input from others. It’s the opposite of a fixed mindset, whereby someone views the success of others as a threat and feedback as an attack. Such people tend to be risk averse and believe that talent is fixed.
The moment Alcaraz won Wimbledon.
Sticking to the plan
During his Wimbledon match against Djokovic, the game plan within Alcaraz’s camp remained consistent, even when momentum shifted. For example, in the long second set, which followed a one-sided first set, Alcaraz broke serve (he won the game even though Djokovic was serving).
In the book, A Consultant’s Guide to Excellence for Sport and Performance Enhancement, a team of sport psychologists discuss the temptation of high-level performers to adjust their tactics away from what has worked in the past and towards something new. Some athletes believe they will get a small performance gain from doing so.
But this is usually an error, as sporting success is borne on well-practiced and understood patterns that, when adjusted, can lose – not enhance – effectiveness.
There were a number of moments during the Wimbledon final where Alcaraz could have adjusted what he was doing as a result of unexpected events. Djokovic’s long bathroom break at the end of the third set, for example, could well have put enhanced pressure on him. The loss of the fourth set, too, could have pushed him to try different tactics. https://www.youtube.com/embed/1RqmVrajks8?wmode=transparent&start=0 Alcaraz in the post-win press conference.
But sticking to the plan and his belief in its effectiveness to bring about the best possible version of himself meant he was in control. Alcaraz has had the same coach since he was 15 and his player box was filled with his longstanding team and family members, epitomising this approach.
Perhaps his trademark aggressive ground strokes also allowed Alcaraz to release any aggression or anxiety in a productive way. Compare this to the more controlled tactical game played by Novak whereby there is no obvious release for pent up frustration and this could partially explain a racket violation by Novak in the final set.
James Beale, Senior Lecturer in Sport Psychology, University of East London