NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic considers his mental state just as important as his physical condition when it comes to being prepared to play his best at age 36.
“Mentally there is probably a lot more that I’m dealing with in my private life than was the case 10 years ago. But that’s the beauty of life. Things are evolving, moving on,” said Djokovic, who will try to take another step toward what would be a 24th Grand Slam title when he faces Ben Shelton in the U.S. Open semifinals Friday.
“I just feel that there is always, I guess, an extra gear that you have inside of you and you can find when you dig deep to handle and manage energy levels, on and off the court,” Djokovic said, “if you’re really devoted to that and if you care about it, if you pay attention to that mental aspect as much as physical, of course.”
By the time players arrive at Flushing Meadows for the last major tournament of a long season — one that began in late December and will carry on into November — the ailments and injuries that are part of any professional athlete’s existence can make things tough. Some competing at the U.S. Open, which concludes this weekend, say the wear and tear on the mind can be just as hard to deal with as whatever might be wrong with one’s body.
“We’re already smashed. Completely,” said Daria Kasatkina, a 26-year-old from Russia who reached the fourth round in New York.
Stress comes from a variety of sources. The desire to win each match, of course. The importance of earning, and defending, rankings points. The fact that there is no annual salary in a sport where every competitor is an independent contractor who needs to pay for travel expenses and, in most cases, a personal coach, physiotherapist and other members of their “team.”
“At a Slam, tension is always there. A few days before it’s starting, you’re already feeling it. ... You have to accept it and, maybe even round by round, it’s getting worse and worse,” said Kasatkina, a 2022 French Open semifinalist. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of this show. And we’re all in the same situation, all the players.”
U.S. Davis Cup captain Bob Bryan, who won 16 Grand Slam doubles titles with his twin, Mike, recalls how that would set in for some in Flushing Meadows.
And he recalls how it could alter on-court performance.
“There’s times where you just get out there and mentally you just can’t push because you’re so exhausted. And you don’t deal with the adversity well. Your thoughts turn negative and you’re not opportunistic and optimistic on the court. And that will definitely affect your game,” Bryan said. “There’s a lot of players that never figured that out during their career. A lot of great champions and a lot of Hall of Famers ran out of gas here in New York.”
Not everyone deals with mental fatigue — or, if they do, acknowledges it.
“Physically, mentally, I feel ready,” Aryna Sabalenka, who will play Coco Gauff in the women's final Saturday, said before the start of the U.S. Open. “I feel motivated. I feel strong.”
Professional athletes offering frank thoughts on mental health is still a relatively recent development. A tennis player, Naomi Osaka, was one of the first stars to come forward and discuss feelings of anxiety and depression, doing so after withdrawing from the 2021 French Open.
She didn’t set out to change perceptions on the topic or encourage others to seek help.
“It was a little selfish,” Osaka said Wednesday at the U.S. Open, where she participated with retired Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in a panel discussion about mental health in sports. “I wasn’t thinking about everyone else, to be 100% honest.”
But she did help spur the discourse.
“For quite a few years, actually, mental training was not really talked about much, generally, in the tennis world. And mental health is a subject that is quite talked about in the last, I would say, three, four years, which I’m glad. It needs to be out there,” Djokovic said.
“It needs to be addressed in a proper way, so that the players have proper understanding of what they are going through and then have help and guidance, necessary guidance, for them to overcome certain obstacles," he said. "Because in the end of the day, we are also people that have to deal with the private issues that everyone has.”
The ways players try to cope differs.
Some travel with a sports psychologist, for example.
Some make sure to manage their schedule to figure out when it’s possible to get a bit of a breather.
Some just accept that there aren't many opportunities to recharge.
“The season is so long that there are so many ups and downs,” said 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who faces defending champion Carlos Alcaraz on Friday. “You just keep going, keep playing. I don’t think I have been on vacation in the offseason for three years. ... You just try to manage this physical and mental fatigue the best you can with experience, and usually I feel like I’m doing this not too bad.”
Howard Fendrich has been the AP's tennis writer since 2002.