By L. Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated Magazine

Tennis fans will have plenty to look forward to during the next fortnight at Wimbledon: strawberries, cream… and their favorite players choking.

Gag Rule

She has a thunderous serve, exquisite ground strokes and a thoroughly delightful personality. The reason you may know little about Améie Mauresmo is that she is in the neurological equivalent of Chapter 11. When Wimbledon begins on Monday, Mauresmo, a 24-year-old French femme, will be one of the top seeds. If form holds, however, she will steal defeat from the jaws of victory, collapsing like a bad souffléi. On the matter of slaying her mental demons, she concedes, “I still have work to do.”

Which puts her in good company. Just consider the recent French Open. In the first round Slovakia’s Lubomira Kurhajcova squandered a 6-0,5-0 advantage, and in the final round, Argentina’s Guillermo Coria held a 2-0 set lead over countryman Gaston Gaudio before wilting under the weight of the occasion and losing 8-6 in an adrenaline-addled fifth set. “To see that my body let me down and my nerves let me down,” said Coria, “I wanted to come out of this….” Then he dissolved into tears.

For all the talk of how physically rigorous professional tennis has become, the truth is that it has never been more mentally taxing. “It’s gotten brutal,” says Jim Loehr, a prominent sports psychologist. “There is so much parity that even the best players know they can’t come out flat or they’ll lose. Every mental lapse is punished severely.” So, as unpredictably as die Wimbledon draw may unfold, here’s a sure bet at Ladbrokes: There will be no shortage of epic meltdowns.

The failure to perform under pressure, choking, to use the dirtiest word in the sports lexicon, afflicts all athletes, but tennis players are particularly susceptible. There are no teammates to help absorb the stress or the blame. There’s no clock to run out. No shifting to cruise control or laying up on a par-5. Start to play conservatively, and your opponent will cram the ball down your throat. “The thing about tennis,” says John McEnroe, “is that no matter what happens, you have to win the last point.”

And it’s not just the pros who face choking hazards. Affixing telemetry monitors to recreational players, Loehr noticed that even hackers undergo massive physiological changes between deuce and ad-in. Loehr recalls one 52-year-old developing a full atrial flutter when the match tightened. Pressure triggers the release of Cortisol, a stress hormone that speeds up the heart and increases the rate of breathing. When this occurs, muscles are deprived of oxygen, causing them to tighten. Suddenly, the most routine shots miss their targets, which only intensifies pressure and, in turn, the biochemical changes, a “downward performance cycle,” the psychologists call it. “It’s called choking for a reason,” says McEnroe. “Sometimes you really feel like you can barely breathe.”

While there’s no cure, there are treatments. Many players meditate before and during matches, one star practices low-grade self-hypnosis, visualizing his negative thoughts as falling leaves that land in a stream and then drift away. When tennis’s legion of “performance coaches” tell their charges to “stay in the here and now,” they are not just trafficking in Dr. Phil psychobabble. “Anxiety stems from worrying about the past or worrying about the future,” says Michael Lardon, a San Diego-based sports shrink. “You don’t want your mind to drift.” The other key is to let instinct take over and resist overthinking. A recent study in the American Journal of Neuroradiology revealed that the golfers who hit the most accurate shots had the least brain activity. “Self-consciousness,” says Lardon, “leads to compromised performance.”

Jana Novotna, the grand dame of choking, came within five points of winning Wimbledon in 1993 before her inner circuitry simply blew. With the championship on her racket, she couldn’t keep the ball in the court. She fell to the unflappable Steffi Graf and was so distraught that, unforgettably, she cried on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder at the trophy presentation. While Novotna never mastered the self-Heimlich, she did suppress her gag reflexes long enough to win Wimbledon in 1998. When the tension is ratcheted highest these next two weeks, Mauresmo and her jangly-nerved colleagues ought to recall Novotna’s triumph on the same courts and take a deep, cleansing breath.