The 1 Crucial Factor That Cost Federer Big Time Against Djokovic…

Before this match, I was curious to see many good judges predicting a Federer victory. And with Djokovic looking below par in the 3rd set, Federer had his chances to grab the match by the throat earning 2 break points at 3-4. But why did I feel, that even in these moments, Djokovic was a heavy favourite to go on and win the match? To answer this question, it’s important to first reflect on the dynamics of that commonly used word: CONFIDENCE.

 What is Confidence?

Confidence is simply the triggering of implicit memories of past outcomes in similar circumstances.

Implicit memories? What?

Implicit memories are memories that are created without us knowing we’re remembering something (as opposed to explicit memories where we are aware that we are ‘remembering’ something).

For example, one type of implicit memory is called ‘procedural’ memory that relates to skill development…

An example of procedural implicit memory is learning to ride a bike for the first time.

As the child adjusts his/her movements to match the requirements of the task he/she isn’t aware that those adjustments are a result of his/her implicit memories from previous attempts…

But another type of implicit memory vital to how players interpret competition situations involves implicit memory of emotional experiences.

Consider this Example…

If you’d previously been bitten by a dog and were to later come across a similar looking dog you’d likely automatically see the dog as dangerous, experience anxiety, and have an urge to run away.

So, being bitten by a dog later influences your response to a similar looking dog without feeling like a memory of the day you were bitten.

Our brains adapt to all types of ‘emotional implicit memories’ by continually automatically preparing us for the future based on what’s happened in the past, invisibly creating our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In this way our brains act like an ‘anticipation machine’, funneling and filtering incoming information through the lens of our past experiences, and influencing how we come to ‘see’ and ‘be’ in future situations.

In the case of confidence we experience implicit memories of similar past events as outcome expectations (thoughts) and an emotional ‘sense’ of what we expect will occur next as we encounter new situations.

Which Implicit Memories Influence Confidence Most Powerfully?

There is a simple formula we can use to understand how emotional implicit memories from past experiences will determine a player’s present moment confidence…

Emotional Implicit Memory R + S + P = Confidence

1.) R stands for Recency

This one is pretty simple…The more recent the memory that is triggered, the more powerfully it affects confidence…

So, all being equal, the more recent the match the more strongly the outcome of that match will influence a player’s confidence.

2.) S stands for Specificity

Specificity considers how similar the implicit memory being triggered is to the current situation…

For example, playing against the same player; in the same tournament; or on the same surface  will trigger implicit memories more powerfully than when memories are triggered in less specific circumstances such as results against different players, etc…

3.) P stands for Power

Power is simply the level of emotion that the previous experience evoked…

Because our brains remember experiences to the degree that those events elicited emotion, the more intensely a player experienced emotion during the match being ‘remembered’, the more powerfully that event will affect future levels of confidence…

The 4 Levels of Implicit Memory R + S + P that Influenced Player Confidence During the US Open Final…

1.) General

Djokovic has a much better overall recent ATP/Grand Slam record than Federer, and therefore his general implicit memories support more current confidence than Federer.

2.) More Relevant

Although they have 21-21 career head-to-head record, Djokovic owns a significant advantage over Federer in their match ups over recent years (even though Federer won in Cincinnati)…

3.) Even More Relevant

When we consider their most recent, specific, powerful memories, we need to consider their Grand Slam encounters…

Once again, although Federer dominated their early encounters, Djokovic had won 4 of their last 5 Grand Slam matches including their last 2 Grand Slam finals…

So the MOST specific, recent, powerful implicit memories in their joint history strongly favour Djokovic…

4.) The Most Relevant

And if we dig deeper to find the most specific and powerful implicit memories that would have determined both players confidence in the most crucial moments during the US Open final…we need to explore the trajectory of key moments during their recent battles.

First, when Federer and Djokovic entered the 2014 Wimbledon final, their combined history looked quite different.

Although it had been 2 years since Federer had been to a Slam final at the time, he had won his last finals appearance (2012 Wimbledon), and 2 of his last 3 Slam finals.

In comparison, although Djokovic had a better recent overall record than Federer at that time, he had lost 5 of his last 6 Slam finals including his last 3…He’d also lost a number of 5 set matches in big Grand Slam encounters leading up to that match.

The crucial turning point came when, soon after Federer had come back from the brink of defeat to win the 4th set, Federer went up break point early in the 5th  set…

Djokovic committed to a great play and saved that break point (despite his recent history ensuring that he lacked confidence in that moment), and he went on to play incredible tennis during the last few games to win a classic match…

Djokovic spoke after the match of his experience, “I would lie if I said it was not on my mind (his recent Grand Slam losses), of course it started playing with my confidence and I had some doubts…and that is why this win has a special importance to me mentally. Because I managed to not just win against my opponent but win against myself as well and find that inner strength that got me the trophy today”.

While some would say that the developing Djokovic vs Federer Grand Slam pattern since that match is simply a function of Djokovic’s continuously, mind blowing, overall improvement, I would argue that a crucial factor is both players’ implicit emotional memory tied to that 1 break chance (and subsequent match outcome) which became immersed in both players’ critical moment confidence moving forward.

In all of their matches since that match coming into the 2015 US Open final, Federer had converted 12 of 59 break point chances whereas Djokovic had converted 17 of 49…

Most recently, in their previous 4 matches on tour before the US Open final, Federer has converted a measly 4 of 26 break point chances, whereas Djokovic had converted 11 of 28…

And in their most recent, specific, powerful encounter, the 2015 Wimbledon final, Federer converted 1 of 7 break chances, whereas Djokovic converted 4 of 10.

So this time, when it came to the crunch at 3-4 in the 3rd with Federer earning 2 break point opportunities and standing on the brink of a 2 sets to 1 lead, 1 man (Djokovic) entered those points supremely confident that when push came to shove, in the biggest moments of the biggest matches, he now had Federer’s measure. In contrast, Federer’s inability to completely commit to decisive aggressive points in those critical moments wreaked of being ‘caught up’ in a lack of confidence…

And it’s simply incredible how the great game of tennis has an innate ability to decipher and reward the player most committed to actions that increase the chance of success when matches reach crunch time…

By the end, with Federer eventually see-sawing from playing not aggressive enough, to recklessly aggressive on some break points in the 4th set, he had converted just 4 of 23 break point chances, compared with Djokovic’s 6 of 13…

And if we wanted any more convincing of the importance of Djokovic’s strengthening break point conversion advantage over Federer.

Consider this…

During their 2 Grand Slam matches this year, quite incredibly, Federer actually won 265 non break-chance points to Djokovic’s 260.

But crucially, Federer only won 18 points, against Djokovic’s 35, that were break point opportunities (for either player)…

And so, a vital factor in Djokovic’s growing Grand Slam dominance over Federer is his supreme confidence (and Federer’s lack of it) in the most important moments…

So What Can We Do As Coaches To Develop Player Confidence?

To offer my opinion, I am going to paraphrase an article I wrote last year…

A few years ago I tended to encourage players low on confidence to just ‘trust’ their shots, or ‘believe’ in themselves.

This is typically not helpful however.

Unfortunately, because confidence is simply the triggering of implicit memories, it can’t be created out of nowhere.

Therefore, when I did this I was likely asking players to do something that was not possible.

So How Might I Respond in Those Situations Now?

Instead of expecting the player to change the natural internal states that show up in these circumstances, I try to first promote an environment in which players feel comfortable discussing difficult mental experiences, and then communicate that their lack of confidence, belief, or trust is normal based on their past experiences of similar situations.

I then encourage them to try to notice, during matches, when their actions start to be dominated by their lack of confidence, and instead, commit to helpful processes without confidence.

Or commit without trust.

So, in practice, I would say something like, “No matter what, if its the last thing you do on this earth, the goal is to be able to finish the point being able to say that you completely committed to (insert helpful process), even through you likely won’t be confident at that time…”

Committing to a helpful process (for example a strategy), despite a lack of confidence/trust/belief leads to better execution/outcomes when players have committed to the process for long enough.

Better execution/outcomes then results in more confidence/trust/belief over time.

So confidence and belief in situations that previously evoked a lack of confidence come AFTER commitment to helpful actions without confidence/trust, not before.

Rather than telling players to ‘trust’ it, or ‘believe in yourself’ when the situation they’re in does not naturally create these internal states…

I believe it’s best to tell them to commit to helpful actions while recognizing that they will not have trust/confidence/belief in that moment.

Just like Djokovic’s increased confidence in Grand Slam finals was born out of 1 crucial moment when he ‘committed without confidence’ against Federer in the 2014 Wimbledon final… This approach will result in more of these desirable states in similar future scenarios.

And for Federer…

So while I feel very uncomfortable giving advice to the greatest male player of all time, I am going to do it anyway 🙂

I deeply believe that at that this juncture, to increase his chance of success against Djokovic in their 1st (potential) Grand Slam match next year, Federer needs to first openly recognise that when it comes to the big points, he’s not going to be confident…

This recognition will increase the likelihood that he’ll quickly notice the urge to go for too little or too much in those moments…

He also needs to decide before the match very specific decisive aggressive plays that he is absolutely going to commit to, no matter what, on these occasions… the decision needs to be made before the match, not in the moment.

In combination, this process will allow to implement his best strategy…It may not be enough against the relentless machine that Djokovic has become…But it will certainly increase Federer’s chance of success in the moment.

And if he was to be rewarded by winning a couple of those crucial points as a result, new seeds of confidence will have been planted…

 

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2 thoughts on “The 1 Crucial Factor That Cost Federer Big Time Against Djokovic…

  1. I think your analysis of the U.S. Open final has strong merit and that overall your suggestions in developing/maintaining confidence are good guidelines for any player.
    I think Roger in his post match interview gave a nod to his inability to convert the numerous break opportunities he had. Of course never truly being able to get into anyone’s head does leave wide open the reason for a players certain performance at any one time. Given that he is the greatest player of all time and has been able to recraft his game to be at the top of the field, I anticipate him making the mental adjustment. I think looking at how he did successfully handle break point opportunities thru all the rounds leading up to the final will give him a strong basis to handle future critical break point opportunities should he face Novak, or anyone else.
    On the other hand it also might be worth considering that he moved thru the lead up rounds so successfully without great challenge, that when he did meet that challenge against Novak his lack of RECENT implicit memory in overtaking a greater challenge was not there. But he did an amazing job of getting past Murray and Stan and I think there was PLENTY of stress for him in those matches.
    As he said when asked post match how he did it, after being down two sets to Monfils and coming back to win three straight and the match, he said, “I found it an opportunity to execute”. Motivation for us all with any pursuit.

    • Thanks for your analysis Alan… I agree that Roger is in a great position to respond well to all players except Djokovic next year…But with a break point conversion percentage of about 15% over their last 5 matches including the 2 slam finals I believe that regardless of what Fed does outside of his matches with Djokovic in slams, unfortunately for those of us who would love to see him win another one, if he gets to a crucial moment when having another chance against Djokovic, his now building history against him is going to be a huge hurdle to overcome… And given that Fed is going to be 4 months older at the Aussie Open I fear his chances to beat Djokovic in a slam have passed