The psychology of tennis: How research makes sense of Tsitsipas’ defeat to Kyrgios at Wimbledon
Professor Andre Spicer explains how Kyrgios’ tactics got under the skin of Tsitsipas in bad-tempered Grand Slam clash.
A leading behavioural expert says the intensive level of psychology displayed in tennis is a key reason the sport remains so popular – and explains the reasons behind the most talked about match at this year’s Wimbledon.
Professor Andre Spicer said the physical and psychological elements of the sport have been shown in many facets during Wimbledon, highlighting how competition can impact performance, how momentum impacts progress, and how players attempt to assert themselves over their opponent and the umpire.
Professor Spicer says there is no better example than the recent third round match between the established men’s professionals of Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Australian won in four sets against the higher ranked Greek in a bad-tempered match littered with controversy.
The pair had previously played doubles together but were far from friendly on court, with both fined penalties totalling around £10,000 after the match. Tsitsipas claimed Kyrgios’ continuous critique of the umpire and his opponent during the match was a tactic to distract him, and later labelled him a ‘bully’ and ‘evil’.
Professor Spicer said the psychological sparks that flew in the match may have been down to a number of reasons.
“Wimbledon is hotting up,” said Professor Spicer, Dean of Bayes Business School. “One of the reasons it is so popular is that tennis has many lessons to teach us about how people react to competition in business and life in general.
“One of the most fascinating competitive clashes this year has been between Kyrgios and Tsitsipas. The pair have been doubles partners and are used to collaborating but when they met in their singles match, they had to compete with one another. During the match psychological sparks flew.
“Competition in tennis is both physical and psychological. Research has found that players can choke under pressure. This is particularly true for men. Competition can make skilled people perform worse, and this happened during the Kyrgios – Tsitsipas match. While the quality of tennis remained high, Tsitsipas had lost the psychological parity the two may have had at the start of the match.”
Playing momentum was diminished by psychological momentum
Despite winning the first set, Tsitsipas was unable to exert what should have been a psychological advantage at that point. This was significantly in part down to Kyrgios still having the psychological advantage. Professor Spicer said the role of momentum was crucial in tennis, adding that because Kyrgios had the crowd’s support and held a head-to-head advantage over Tsitsipas in professional meetings (four wins to one), he was able to maintain a level of momentum throughout the rest of the match.
“When players are on a roll, they gain an advantage,” said Professor Spicer. “A study found that when a player's psychological momentum is interrupted, they lose the competitive advantage. Despite his higher ranking Tsitsipas produced more mistakes on court than his opponent because he was rattled.
“This match was interesting as research shows that after losing the first set of a match (as Kyrgios did), players who are expected to win are significantly more likely to quit than players who are expected to lose. While Tsitsipas cannot be accused of quitting, he was certainly shaken by the tactics of his opponent, which will have impacted his own attitudes, striking a ball at his opponent on more than one occasion.
“A separate study found if a player won the first set, as Tsitsipas did, they were likely to exert more effort in the second set than loser. However, Kyrgios was the winner in the second set, providing the value of gaining an advantage psychologically, with the odds against him.
“The final interesting feature of the game was challenges to the authority of the umpire. Researchers have found that male tennis players challenges to authority are more likely to be provoked by the actions of their opponent. Kyrgios, who this week said in a press conference that he ‘does what he wants’ after breaking the dress code on court, has challenged authority for some time.
“Male challenges to authority are also more likely to make embarrassing challenges over line calls. This was also on display in this match, although these calls were embarrassing in the sense that they were made to disrupt the flow of the opponent, despite clearly being a fault.”