Emma Raducanu is already proving a master of changing the narrative. At Wimbledon some questioned her temperament after she pulled out of her fourth-round match with breathing difficulties. Two months on, those critics were made to eat their words after her stunning US Open victory in the Big Apple.
She was at it again at a homecoming event at the National Tennis Centre on Friday, showing her ruthless side by revealing she had dispensed with the services of her coach in New York, Andrew Richardson. Of course, it was the right decision. Richardson was on a short-term contract and has little experience of the WTA tour. And, even at 18, Raducanu is old enough to know that fairytales can soon be shredded by the cut-throat world of professional sport.
But Raducanu also said something that was worthy of attention when asked what she had done to cope better mentally between struggling against Ajla Tomljanovic at Wimbledon – when one unforced error spiralled into another and then another – and the US Open, where she was as hard as granite.
“I’m pretty resilient and when down, or facing adversity, I feel like I bounce back pretty quickly and don’t let that disappointment affect me,” she said. But how about when you hit an unforced error on a big point at the US Open, how do you try to ensure it doesn’t happen again? “I just try to acknowledge what happened in that shot and don’t repeat the mistake,” she replied.
Psychologists have a phrase for that – “expertise-induced amnesia”, which is used to describe the automatic and non-conscious nature of skilled performance. And it perhaps helps explain why Raducanu was able to cope so well with the odd sticky moment in New York.
I learned about this from a fascinating new study, “Psychological pressure and compounded errors during elite-level tennis”, which looked at more than 650,000 points played in every men’s and women’s singles match at the 12 grand slams from 2016 to 2019 to try to better understand the persistent puzzle surrounding who copes, and who chokes, under pressure.
For every point the team of academics from the University of Exeter and Royal Holloway asked two key questions: what was the level of pressure on the players, and did they hit a winner, unforced error or double fault? If, for instance, a player was 40–30 down on their own serve at 5-4 in the deciding set, this would create the maximum pressure score, compared with a much lower one if a player was 5-0 up and coasting.
So what did they find? First, that the unforced error rate for the highest-pressure points was much greater than the low-pressure points – by 1.75 times, in fact. That was not a surprise. Nor perhaps is the revelation that when a player made an unforced error the chances of them doing so again significantly increased on subsequent points.
However, more intriguingly, the researchers also found that these two effects also interact to create a “cycle of pressure – mess up, more pressure, mess up again”, as one of the authors, Dr David Harris, explained to me.
This is interesting. In sport, we hear a lot about the “hot hand” – where a successful shot leads to another, then another, and suddenly the commentator is screaming “He’s on fire” and the player can’t seem to miss.
However, the academics tentatively suggest that might be more evidence for the “cold hand” theory – where errors and negative brain chatter lead to more mistakes and a downward spiral.
The research contains another interesting finding. The biggest names in men’s and women’s tennis are often reckoned to be more “clutch” under pressure – in other words, they play even better when the stakes are higher. But the academics found little evidence of that happening.
Naturally, successful players had a better ratio of winners to unforced errors across all points. “However, for higher pressure points the distributions of winners to unforced errors for successful/unsuccessful players was very similar to the overall distributions,” the academics noted, “indicating that successful players simply maintained their general advantage under pressure and did not somehow ‘raise their game’.” Similar patterns have been found in the NBA, with players thought to be “clutch” not actually improving their shooting percentage in the last five minutes of games, although they did take more shots which may have altered perceptions.
So what is the best strategy for coping? As the academics note, “the benefits of pre‑shot routines for performing under pressure are varied and not fully understood”. However, Raducanu’s point-by-point approach to coping with pressure is remarkably similar to how Annika Sörenstam, one of the most successful golfers of all time on the Ladies PGA tour, responded to mistakes.
In interviews, the Swede has said she barely remembered making an error on the course. Instead, after a bad shot she conducted a brief analysis of her mistake, before moving on to focus on the “now shot”.
Raducanu’s approach is certainly on the same page. “When I was younger I would get quite upset and emotional on the court, and I got that knocked out of me pretty quickly,” she told us on Friday. “My parents didn’t like that, so from a young age I’ve just had this mindset and stayed very calm.” Whisper it softly to Piers Morgan, but so far it appears to be working.