During his French Open semi-final match against Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish phenom, felt something he never felt before: tension. In fact, Alcaraz was so nervous, he started cramping — so badly, he could not run. “It is not easy to play against Novak…” he said. “If someone says that he gets into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies.”
Djokovic, on the other hand, kept his cool. He could have been rattled by the popular upstart, who has both youth and the fans on his side. Yet, Djokovic remained calm and collected racing to victory in four quick sets. “First and foremost, I have to say tough luck for Carlos,” said Djokovic during his post-match, on-court interview following the match. “At this level, the last thing you want is cramps and physical problems at the late stages of the grand slams. I feel for him…”
Two days later, Djokovic returned to Court Philippe Chatrier and won his 23rd Grand Slam title. Tennis commentators expressed awe, if not surprise, over the Serb’s dominance, trying to analyse his mastery. “There’s no better adjuster to what’s going on, ever. Part of it is because he’s so malleable with his strokes,” said Patrick McEnroe. “(His) level today is higher than it’s ever been” says Mats Wilander. But Jeff Greenwald, watching from his home in California, knew instantly. “He’s likely using a skill he developed as a child in Serbia, Greenwald said.
“NATO forces were conducting air raids to crush Slobodan Milosevic’s government, but despite the sirens and explosions, Djokovic stayed outside and practiced. He and two other Serbian players — Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic — worked their way into the Top 10 from this club in Belgrade.
“Research shows that majority of top athletes who experienced significant difficulty at an early age and overcame it, developed an inner strength that carries them through life. They develop a hunger to train, feel and endure the pain and the drive that is built into sport.”
Greenwald, a sports psychologist, has spent his career coaching his clients into developing Djokovic-like equanimity. He represents the newest addition to pro players’ entourages, the tool that will take top tour achievers, such as Iga Swiatek, Ons Jabeur, Stefanos Tsitsipas and many others, deep into the second weeks of big tournaments. “So everything goes to Melanie Maillard (Jabeur’s French mental coach), of course,” Jabeur told The National in 2022. “When I see that she’s in my box, it helps me a lot. She’s my lucky charm right now.”
Not much practically separates Greenwald from the Maillards, the Daria Abramowiczes (Iga Swiatek’s coach) and the rest of the several dozen other sports psychologists on tour today, according to Greenwald. Like the others, he helps players develop mental toughness, provides them with techniques to handle the stress of matches and other tour responsibilities, teaches them more effective ways to manage their emotions and lastly, assists them in setting clear goals to maximise their potential on the court.
Compared to the other mental coaches, however, Greenwald has been teaching the mental game of tennis — and using his own techniques on court — for possibly the longest: 30-plus years. The author of The Best Tennis of Your Life: 50 Mental Strategies for Fearless Performance, as well as a Nick Bollettieri alumnus and a former tour player, Greenwald also still tries and tests his theories of the tennis mind on the ITF Seniors Tour and through his online course, Fearless Tennis.
“What I do is highly practical. We are all hard-wired with the automatic fight or flight response. I can’t get rid of all the anxiety — and players need some,” says Greenwald, who is traveling to Portugal next month to play the World Individual Championships 55 division. “But I can help them get their minds out of the way of their bodies so that they don’t choke and they don’t find themselves in slumps.
“The tactical margins are so small at the highest level in tennis, so any edge a player can get is going to give them an advantage. They have a conditioning coach and a regular coach at the highest level, most players would say the most important part at the top is their temperament.”
Greenwald would know. A native of Westport, Connecticut who worked with Bollettieri during the famed Florida coach’s “lord of the flies… kill or be killed” early days, by 1983 Greenwald had earned the No. 2 ranking in New England and a No. 59 national ranking. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1988 — where he was the number one player and also the team captain — Greenwald joined the ATP tour and earned world rankings in singles and doubles.
Despite occasional wins over Top-200 players, Greenwald grew frustrated with his performance and quit the ITF Futures to move to Hamburg and coach high-ranked juniors, as well as play for a German club team. Competing just a few days a week, Greenwald began to tap into a “state” that allowed him to play better — looser and freer. He also became deeply curious about how the mind and body interact — or don’t — during the high-pressure moments of athletic competition.
Greenwald moved to San Francisco and earned master’s degrees in clinical psychology and sport psychology. In 1998, he opened Mental Edge International to help struggling athletes reach their potential and consequently, became the 2002’s top ITF senior player in the world, winning eleven National Titles and two ITF World Championships.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote ‘Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it,’” Greenwald says. “The better you get in the game, the less your self-worth is on the table — ladies playing at 4.0 or 3.5 feel more pressure than Novak Djokovic or Nadal.
“The focus on the social consequences or ramifications are so great, that there is a lot of overthinking. The brain is used to overthinking all day long and the mind goes to a technique which it shouldn’t. I help people adjust their inner dial, and let go of tension, or use their intensity to focus on things like footwork, and even if it’s the wrong thing, one specific thing will calm your mind and help you be present.”
Although he started in cognitive behavioural psychology, Greenwald has recently taken up the “new wave” in psychology: Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). Through ACT, players learn to stop avoiding, denying and struggling with their inner emotions and, instead, accept that these deeper feelings are appropriate responses to certain situations that should not prevent them from moving forward. “Federer used to get angry and throw his racquets, but people behind the scenes helped him work on it. Novak hit his slump and survived it with a psychologist,” Greenwald says.
The California mental coach has been invited into sit in players’ boxes and go on tour, but work and family keep him in California, he says, using teleconferencing to see patients in all sports, but mostly tennis. “Iga (Swiatek) really opened another door when she publicly announced, ‘I would like to thank my sports psychologist’ after she won the French Open and it will only grow from there,” Greenwald says.
He believes, however, that the next evolution in his field of expertise would come about by training otherwise ordinary coaches in sports psychology. “It’s hard to have it all — the physio and coach and sports psychologist. It gets cost prohibitive for most.
“Going forward, coaches will likely get more educated in the peak performance but not necessarily with the anxiety and depression and other mental issues, so I am not going to train myself out of a job,” he says. “Tennis by nature is unique in the amount of pressure — rivalry, intense parents, fans, expectations, getting into college, on tour. It’s all very stressful. You don’t want the sharks to see blood.”
You can check out more from Jeff Greenwald over at www.fearlesstennis.com