It is a common misconception that playing tennis is a strictly physical battle. An examination of one’s skill and prowess against those of an opponent. Whilst this undoubtedly carries some truth, it is the mental side of the sport where the true fight lies for many; a determinant often between victory and defeat.
British tennis player Katy Dunne is someone who appreciates this sentiment more than most. Born in Hertfordshire, Dunne has spent the first part of her career playing predominantly on the ITF Women’s circuit.
The 24-year-old has endured a frustrating year with injuries disrupting the momentum of impressive results – most notably her first 60k title in Les Franqueses del Valles back in May. Despite recent adversity, Dunne retains a strikingly positive outlook.
“I haven’t been able to get out there as much as I wanted, but when I have I feel like I’ve been playing pretty good. I’ve been working on the mental side, so mentally the goals that I had for this year I’ve nailed them.”
Keen to elaborate further on her newly-developed mental approach, Dunne continues: “For me, I go out there wanting to put all of my controllables on court, which are commitment, doing my routines, and responding to pressure situations and things going wrong as well as I can. That’s how I try and judge how I’ve done on the court.”
The psychological side of the game has however not always been a key area of focus for the Briton. As she explains with impressive honesty, it has only recently become a major part in her preparation.
“The reason why I started to want to do the mental side is because I struggled a lot with nerves and pressure, and not feeling good about myself. I was also judging who I was from whether I was winning tennis matches or not,” Dunne admits.
Whilst mental toughness is a key attribute for players to demonstrate on-court, it is equally important to receive psychological backing from external sources such as coaches, family and friends. This support is particularly valuable for athletes competing in individual sports.
Dunne acknowledges this, paying particular credit to her coach: “My coach does psychology work with me. He went to a lot of discussions with Steve Peters who created and wrote about the Chimp Paradox. I try to train off that ethos and how to deal with the mental side of things through using that paradox.”
Whilst players on the ITF circuit are unable to have on-court coaching at any of the events, Dunne explains this has no bearing on the strength of the relationship between coach and player. As the 24-year-old alludes to, the coach-player relationship remains vital and runs both ways.
“You can’t have a tennis coach that is going to have a different mind-set to you about winning and losing or training. You have to be able to work together. He’s taught me a better way of looking at my career, and then he’s also bought into what I’ve said.”
Having reached a career high ranking of 212 last summer, Dunne balances confidence with pragmatism when discussing her future targets. “I want to get into grand slam qualifying to start with, and then keep working my way up. I genuinely believe I can be top 100, so that’s a big goal of mine.”
The highlight so far in Dunne’s young career has arguably been her appearance in the Wimbledon main draw last summer. After being offered a wildcard, Dunne faced Latvian 12th seed Jelena Ostapenko in the first round; ultimately going down 3-6 6-7 in two close sets.
Despite the defeat, Dunne looks back on the experience fondly. “The fact that I was on centre court was like a dream. It was unbelievable that memory. It just makes me want to be back there. It’s easy to get motivation when you think about that on days that you don’t really want to practice or do something.”
Asked if the career path of fellow Briton and former world number four Johanna Konta – who didn’t break into the top 100 until her mid-twenties – provides motivation moving forwards, Dunne was conclusive with her response.
“Yeah, 100 percent. She has also made the mental side of the game really important to herself. I’ve definitely started doing that in the last couple of years so I feel like it can happen once you put all the pieces together.”
Still only 24 and with time on her side, Dunne is clearly focused on piecing together her own winning formula. There is no doubt that if she can remain free from injury, 2020 promises to be an exciting year.