The Psychology of the Serve: Isner and Mahut Find the Zone

Of course we are all dumbfounded at not only the length of Isner and Mahut’s historic match, but how they could maintain their concentration under these conditions for that long. In an interview, Isner himself, had great difficulty articulating how this was possible: “I don’t know. I guess we both served incredibly well. It’s grass. We were hitting our spots, a lot.”

John Isner winning the longest tennis match in history against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon 2010

And, even though he was struggling with this question, he did hit on the biggest key to this drama. The serve dictated much of this outcome. Let’s see how.

Their serves were on fire. They found their groove. This is less of a surprise from Isner. It was a bit more surprising from #145 in the world, Mahut, who barely qualified into the main draw. But, at this level, they all serve well. It’s also expected to serve well at Wimbledon. It’s survival of the fittest and serving well is mandatory if you want to advance here.

With the expectation and need to serve well came focus. On other surfaces you can get away with serves that are 10 mph slower and don’t hit the line. At Wimbledon it could be the difference between winning and losing on a single point. This will focus you. This awareness will bring you up to the line with a sense of purpose. It will zero your eyes on the spot where you are hitting–early. The decision about where to serve happens instantly. It becomes a poker game with visuals. With nothing but that intention in mind and the confidence to hit their spots, they just let their bodies swing.

Many players that I have worked with approach the line in a multitude of ways, not all of which are helpful–lacking purpose, caught in the last point, thinking too much about technique, focused on the score.

The approach at the line before a serve needs to stay “clean.”–free of mental clutter. The mind needs to be directed to the spot where you want to serve. You need to feel confident without a moment of doubt. And, as we all know, confidence can be a finicky emotion. It comes and goes. But, make no mistake about it, serving ace after ace will fuel the confidence tank immediately and has a way of predicting what will happen next. One serve begets the next. That feeling is not something that is self-generated. It is automatic. It is felt. It’s internal momentum in its finest form.

Isner and Mahut got into that elusive “zone.” It was as if they were playing poker with one another. You could almost see their belief that they were going to come up with an ace when they needed it. They expected it. They saw it ahead of time. They embraced the NEED to do it. It focused them. Their arms became like well-oiled machines that began to almost work automatically. As Isner said, “I wasn’t thinking out there. I had not thoughts. I just wanted to hit a serve and a forehand.” The plan was built in. His body just followed the plan.

It’s fascinating how the need to do something special can create the focus to make that happen. It reduces the internal and external distractions. There is a job to do.

With fatigue gripping each player, there was no psychological “real estate” left over for extraneous thought. This has a way of working magic on self-doubt or hesitation. Thought is replaced by clarity, decisiveness, and economy of swing. Both players had fatigue to thank for this remarkable display of focus and serving proficiency. They didn’t serve that well despite their fatigue, but, rather, because of it.

The serve is the only swing that we initiate. This creates added tension for many. But not for these two warriors over three days. Isner and Mahut tapped into that special mind/bodystate, which left us awestruck. Ace after ace, we were left only to grip the couch wondering what would happen next. When serving, trust me, they knew.