It's one thing to get up as the underdog; it's another thing to close the favorite out. This morning I got a message letting me know that World No.430, Lucas Catarina, was up on No. 13 and recent Indian Wells Champion, Taylor Fritz, at the Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo.
It seemed to be breaking news, but as I got off a meeting to check the final score, noticing that Taylor Fritz did indeed come through in the end, I wondered why? Why was everyone in the tennis world making such a commotion of Catarina winning the first set and almost winning the match? If you ask me, the final score is a pretty anticlimactic ending to all the hype.
I have witnessed countless experiences throughout my tennis life where the underdog gets up on the favorite only to lose. Very rarely does the underdog get up, however, and win. That, to me, would be deserving breaking sports news.
So what can we learn from the Lucas Catarina vs. Taylor Fritz match this morning?
A lesson for the underdogs:
Don't be happy with your accomplishments until the job or task is complete. Underdogs who get up on favorites can't afford to take mental breaths until the match is finished. They can't feel that winning the first set was an accomplishment because if they do, they almost guarantee death. The underdog must understand that getting up on a favorite is one thing, but it is a whole other beast to close the favorite out. The importance for the underdog to understand this reality is so that he continues to hold what we at Mission Elite call "The Hunter's Mentality."
So often, I've seen athletes win the first set or get the lead and have that "oh shit" moment. The "oh shit" moment is when the underdog realizes they might actually have a chance to win this match.
We've all had the "oh shit" moment. It happened to me against World No. 54, Marcos Giron. I was down match points at 5-2 (40-15) in the 2nd set, and I managed to come back, win the 2nd set and ride the wave up to 5-3 for me in the third set. At that point, I said, "Oh shit, I might actually win this match." By taking my mind there, I screwed myself. The next thing I knew, I was on a flight back home, shaking my head. The underdog just cannot afford to wake up to that fact; they have to keep pushing their mental focus on the things that matter, being execution, if they want to give themselves the best chance to come through with the upset.
A lesson for the favorites:
Don't panic. Remember, it's one thing if the underdog can get up on you, but rarely ever will they have the guts to actually close you out. Unfortunately, this holds true so long as you DO NOT PANIC. You panic; you make their job ten times easier during a time when you have to know they are most likely either currently or about to face some real inner mental demons. If you stay calm, I think you'll find that they will quite often self-destruct themselves. If you panic, you self-destruct before you give them the chance to.
Going into my last season at Indiana, I felt some pressure to have a big year. I knew that I'd be playing most of my matches throughout the season as the favorite, and it stressed me out in pre-season. I called a mentor of mine, Matt Brooklyn, the former assistant coach for San Diego and a former #1 for UCLA. I trusted him and knew, having played #1 for UCLA and coached in the NCAA; he'd have faced this before. Interestingly enough, I played Matt at a $15000 event when I was 14 years old. He would have been roughly around 24. I was a feisty young player, but obviously, he was the favorite. He had all the pressure. I remember getting up 4-1 on him to start the first. He looked calm as a cucumber in the utmost veteran, mature competitor-like fashion when I looked across the net. He managed to slowly crawl his way back and send me home like the quiet and good little boy he trained me in that match to be. Remembering our match back then, I asked him, "Matt, how did you manage to stay so calm?" he replied, "I told myself, it's one thing for you to get up on me. It's another thing for you to have the guts to close me out. I knew this would be a huge win for you and that you'd have to face your demons. That kept me calm and allowed me to focus on playing my best tennis instead of playing fearful tennis.." I gave a follow-up question and said, "But what if I did have the guts to close you out.?" He said, "Well, I would have to be okay with it because you earned it. If you had the guts to overcome your mental demons, close me out when so few people do. All I can do is clap my hands and say, "too good.""
I took that lesson I learned from Matt that day, remembered it, and used it to keep me calm and handle being the favorite whenever I was, for the rest of my playing career.
I believe we saw these lessons be applied and or need to be applied today between Catarina and Fritz. Fritz showed incredible composure to not panic in the most chaotic moments and come through in the end. Catarina was so close but had to put his head down and not wake up until the match was over. Regardless, both are incredible players, and they have been able to accomplish what they have through their one in a million mentalities and abilities. I think they can both be players we can look out for in the future.
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