The underdog bites back


Originally published on 25/02/14

Whether it was Greece’s shock win at Euro 2004, the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988 Winter Olympics or Marion Bartoli’s fairytale victory at Wimbledon last year, we all love an underdog story.

Stanislas Wawrinka’s triumph at the Australian Open, beating both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal en route to his first Grand Slam title is an inspiration for everyone, from his fellow professionals to someone who has never picked up a racket before.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” reads the tattoo on Wawrinka’s left forearm. Playwright Samuel Beckett’s words could not be more fitting for a man, who at 28 had lost to Djokovic in 14 straight matches and had never even taken a set off Nadal in 12 previous encounters.

“When you lose it’s tough to take a positive from a defeat, from failing at a tournament,” Wawrinka said of the inscription. “In general that’s how I see my career. I always go back to the court. In general that’s how I see my career. I always go back to the court. I always go back to practice, to try to improve myself and give myself the best chance to beat the best players in the world.”

So whether you’re preparing to face one of the best players in history, or take on a friend who you’ve never managed to beat, belief in your own ability is paramount.

“Sometimes I can wake up and can beat anybody, you know,” said world No.100 Lukas Rosol after his shock second-round defeat of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 20120. “Sometimes I can lose to a player who is ranked 500.”

“It's always open,” he added. It's sport. Nobody's unbeaten. Everybody can lose and everybody can win. We're just people. We're just humans. Everybody can win.”

So how do you go about beating a player you have no chance against, on paper at least? First and foremost, don’t approach it as a match you can’t win.  If you don’t believe in your own abilities, you don’t stand a chance. 

“This morning when I got up, I was like, ‘Look, you can do this.  Go out and play and do your best’,” Sloane Stephens said after her shock win over world No.1 Serena Williams at the 2013 Australian Open.

Ana Ivanovic was the player to upset Williams in Melbourne this year. The Serb had never beaten Serena before, but she too knew she needed to have faith in her abilities and stick to her gameplan.

“I actually believed I could win,” she said. “I'm the kind of player that likes to control the points and I like to also be aggressive, and I just have to believe in it.”

Don’t think about your head-to-head record or dwell on previous defeats. Concentrate on your strengths and how you can exploit any weaknesses in your opponent’s game.

“I don't care about having lost 12 times,” Wawrinka said of his head-to-head record against Nadal ahead of their Australian Open final. “He’s the No.1. His game is quite tough for me… I’ve found a few things that I will try. I’m going to try everything.”

Stick to your usual pre-match routine. Don’t do anything differently – eat the same food, listen to the usual music and approach the match as you would any other.  Spend plenty of time warming up and finding your range on the practice court.

When you make it out onto court, don’t think about the score – just keep focusing on getting your serves in, chasing down every ball and stick to your game plan.

Robin Soderling lost 6-1 6-0 to Nadal at the Rome Masters in 2009 – but a month later pulled off one of the greatest victories of his career when he defeated the four-time defending champion at Roland Garros.

“I told myself this is just another match,” Soderling explained. “All the time I was trying to play as if it was a training session.”

Don’t be afraid to have a Plan B if you find your initial gameplan isn’t working.

“As a coach you have to help your player prepare and decide what strategy to use which you think is the best way of winning,” Lendl told tennishead. “If you can it is best to come up with a Plan B and sometimes even Plan C.”

In the event you do find yourself ahead, don’t be tempted to start thinking about victory.

“Things come into your mind,” said Sam Stosur, who upset Serena in the 2011 US Open final. “You can’t control what comes into your mind. But I guess you can control what you do with those thoughts. I just tried to keep playing each game, each point, and stick to my game plan, stick to my guns and not leave anything to chance.”

Sport is all about being as good as you can be throughout each and every moment and having the concentration and confidence to use your skills to their full extent in spite of the pressure. This philosophy requires bravery, the bravery to control your fear and to play freely without the tension that fear imposes – to PlayBrave.”


This article appears in tennishead Volume 5 Issue 1 – on sale February 27. Subscribe to the magazine today or download tennishead on iTunes.