From an article by Michael Eder published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Three first-round losses — the year didn’t start well for you. What did you bring with you from Australia; what did you learn?
A lot. Australia’s the start of the season—you come out of the off-season and I knew I had done everything perfectly: my nutrition was perfect, went to bed on time, put my whole life behind tennis, behind the training. That approach I brought with me to Australia and continued there. In the end, I was in the tunnel for seven weeks and in hindsight I believe that was just too much— you’re empty, you can’t focus anymore. I have to learn to be more relaxed.
Is it a mistaken impression or have you taken the losses in stride?
In Melbourne, yes. The singles in Brisbane as well, but then we lost first round in doubles and then—my brain is a weird thing—it started three days later that I questioned my singles match. Then the doubts started: was it really a good match? Should I have done something differently during preparation?
Switching off your brain, that doesn’t work?
Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not. Then I start reflecting on everything and can’t get myself out of it.
The pressure from inside is more difficult to control than the pressure from the outside?
Yes, with outside pressure I don’t have any problems. During Fed Cup last year, for example, we had unbelievable pressure because we knew we’d flown to Australia for this and could throw three weeks of our clay season in Europe into the trash. It was obvious: we have to win this, we have to make the final; only then is it a big thing at home—otherwise nobody will care and we wasted three weeks for nothing. But we were able to handle this pressure; we could use it for better attention, for the necessary focus. On the other hand, when the internal pressure becomes too strong, when I say: “I want, I want, I want,” then I usually fail.
On the one side a free thinker, on the other side a workaholic — how does that fit?
It doesn’t at all. That’s my biggest problem: I have a torn soul that I can’t combine. The literature I read, the art I’m interested in—all that is very liberal. I love the abstract and modern arts; I like artists who break rules. But then I also have this disciplined animal inside of me that has to press everything into a mold, that doesn’t look to the left or to the right. Not being able to combine these two sides—that’s the central theme of my life that disunites me.
But you’ve pulled back on the intensity of your training.
Yes. When it comes to physical training, I have indeed learned. I’ve reduced it significantly, but I always find a new field to act out my discipline: nutrition, for example. I didn’t take it to the extreme regularly; but four, five days before a tournament, I did. In hindsight, those were indications before Australia that I was trying to do it too perfectly again.
The triathlete and Hawaii [Ironman] winner Sebastian Kienle recommends to only subordinate 95% of your life to the reign of the sport, and the training, and to reserve the rest for a relaxed attitude. Only this way can you be successful in the long-term and not destroy yourself.
In triathlon, your performance is even more measurable than in tennis; and if someone like Sebastian says that and wins Hawaii with this attitude, then you can see how much even pure physical power depends on the mind. That an Ironman winner says it helps him to be more relaxed and more successful if he shoves a chocolate bar into himself and weighs maybe 500 grams more than necessary, I think that’s very interesting.
If you completely subordinate yourself to the sport — what’s left for real life?
For me sometimes there’s the additional feeling that I lost two years because of my injuries and that I don’t have that much time left for my tennis career—that I have to do everything 100% now and I can do all the other stuff afterwards. But that’s exactly how it doesn’t work. I won’t be able to switch my mind on the last day of my career. Subordinating everything for a goal now and then enjoying everything afterwards, that won’t work. It’s a very important lesson for me that I now try to enjoy everything, every training, that I try to enjoy the little things, that I take some time off, go to the theater, to the museum—and then not think “Oh god, I won’t have eight hours of sleep but only seven and a half.”
Airports, hotels, tournaments, matches — is world-class tennis a bit of its own world?
That’s true for many fields, sports, acting, art—you have to pull yourself out of this world from time to time. The same hotels, the same courts, the same people, the same journalists. Week in, week out, everybody thinks of himself as important, and they do all have important jobs in their fields; but looking at the big picture, we’re all not nearly as important as we think we are.
This weekend the German Fed Cup team will again play Australia in Stuttgart. What’s the attraction of this team competition?
It’s fascinating to see, as an individual athlete, what a team can do, what kind of energy you put out in a community. And it’s a lot of fun to play for Germany as a national team.
The German [WTA players], with the exception of Angelique Kerber, sometimes play well, sometimes badly, sometimes more successful, sometimes less so— that’s true for Julia Görges, Sabine Lisicki, and for you as well. What’s behind this lack of consistency?
Often it’s injuries after which you have to work to win again, to regain confidence. When I was in the Top 10 and free of injuries, I won three or four matches at every tournament. Then it goes automatically. You can’t always explain confidence—sometimes it’s just there. I believe that behind long-term success stands the absolute confidence that nothing will go wrong. It’s naive, actually, but you need a certain naiveté in sports. You have to believe, like a little child, that everything is going to be alright.
Where do you see the biggest potential in your development as an athlete?
Very clearly: coaching. In Australia, my father coached me; we’re looking for a new coach for me now. It’s important to me that I find someone who fits me perfectly, on a personal level as well. I want to respect someone professionally, but I also want to be challenged intellectually. I’m not willing anymore to take just anyone; I have the luxury that my father, who is incredibly knowledgeable, has my back. I understand that he doesn’t want to travel to all tournaments because he doesn’t want the whole family just orbiting around me and he doesn’t want to give up his job as a club coach as well—and I think it’s good this way.
What does a coach have to be able to do?
Tactics, technical training, know the other players—those are the basics. The most important capability of a coach are personal skills: to grasp the player. He has to recognize phases in which the player works against herself and he has to take charge in these kind of phases. He has to be able to give you a good feeling when you’re losing it.
You’re studying politics and philosophy by correspondence. In this regard, why do we never hear anything of significance from tennis players when it comes to politics? Why don’t tennis players publicly come out against Pegida [an anti-immigrant movement in Germany that made headlines for a few weeks in late 2014]? Sport wants to be cosmopolitan, tolerant, international?
It’s true that we almost never answer political questions. I believe the more professional a sport is organized, the less the players are saying. We’re always indoctrinated: don’t say anything about political topics, don’t say anything about doping, all you can achieve with that is to put yourself offside.
Isn’t it cowardly to not use the big influence. . . you have as a top athlete in this direction?
Yes, it’s cowardly—and it’s also something else: it’s convenient. There’s always pro and contra and that’s why for every political statement you’ll get trouble and reactions which you then have to engage. And, for me, I don’t play well when I have trouble with someone.
You’re 27 now. What’s still driving you in sports? The craving for the big win? To have a Grand Slam trophy in your living room?
Before I go to sleep, I see myself holding up slam trophies. I don’t think there’s a Top 100 player who doesn’t have this goal or dream.
And what’s going to come after the career?
I don’t know yet. I just know two things I’m afraid of. The fear of myself, that I won’t be able to handle the insignificance once tennis is gone. And the fear that one day I’ll have a job without challenges—and that I won’t care.
Translated from German by Katja. Feedback and criticism are welcome; please let us know what you think in the comments.
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