Every tennis player draws some set-up help in their competition. Andre Agassi’s short cut is laser training; Caroline Wozniacki’s is the dab-dab at the net; Maria Sharapova’s depends on hand weights, because those little straps make it hard to bend her leg up. If she’s cold and leans to one side, the spin on her racquet is harder.
But Rafael Nadal’s strategies are among the most noted. The Spaniard writes down a myriad of phrases before every match that sound the most logical. He’ll use his hands or flip down his chair for a quick couple of jabs, he says. He’ll slowly draw a little circle in the air as he lines up a shot. Or he will, before a crucial game, let a word slip out. “I don’t know the meaning,” Nadal says of the phrase he calls the Tao. “I guess it’s something good.”
The phrase seems to work. Nadal has amassed 14 major titles over his career.
The modern player relies on technology — by hitting balls on a handheld device, tracking their speed and trajectory — to improve. The new tech also finds its way into culture, and the latest says players look to the Tao for guidance. The Tao carries significance in tennis for another reason, and that is linguistic. While the Tao is spoken only in Mandarin, it is said to hold a spiritual power as well, even beyond words. Using their forearms, players bend forward as they imagine reaching the ceiling. They use their eyes to picture having a mystical encounter, their cheeks to think about moving in a certain way and their hands as if they were covering an open hand.
“It’s always something useful for me to go out on the court,” Wozniacki said. “You play a match and it’s either you win or you lose. Then the victory gives you more inspiration, the loss gives you more frustration.”