What is it about high-performance athletes and teams that they always appear to have another gear to go to when the competition heats up?
This last week alone has seen one example after another.
Firstly, Jon Rahm’s consecutive rounds of 64 and 62 in last weekend’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Lahinch. The Spaniard, world No8, just managed to squeeze into the weekend’s action, only managing two over par for his closing five holes on Friday, and making the cut with one shot to spare, on two under.
In fact, for those same five holes over the first two days, he was only one over par. Yet, over the weekend, he was six under par for that closing stretch, showing remarkable composure and efficiency in getting the job done.
This same efficiency was on display in Wimbledon on Monday as the three players who have lorded over the game for the last decade dominated the men’s side of the tournament. There appeared to be a game within the game at play.
Each living legend aiming to dispatch their opponents with the least amount of fuss and time on court, as if to send a signal that preservation of energy was of paramount importance on Monday of week two, an innate understanding that more energy-sapping encounters lay ahead at the most prestigious grand slam of them.
Rafael Nadal was first on court, dispatching of Joao Sousa from Portugal in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, in a rapid one hour and 45 minutes.
Soon thereafter, world number one and defending champion Novak Djokovic ended 21-year-old Ugo Humbert’s dreams of becoming the youngest winner of Wimbledon since Lleyton Hewitt in 2002. It was a clinical performance from Djokovic, outdoing his opponent in every department with a nonchalant 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 scoreline. As far as the game within the game, Djokovic also outdid Nadal with an even swifter one hour and 42 minutes of court time.
But when it comes to efficiency and tennis, there is one name that oozes such ability in every step he takes: Switzerland’s Roger Federer. To close out singles play on Centre Court on Monday, Federer played Matteo Berretini and crushed him in a blistering one hour and 14 minutes, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
The message was heard across SW16 loud and clear, the eight-time Wimbledon champion means business, and his apparent endless thirst for improvement, even at this stage of his career, shows no signs of slowing.
Yesterday all three powered to the semi-finals, Djokovic and Nadal without dropping a set, Federer dropping just one.
Such energy conservation in the early rounds is key, especially as Federer and Nadal will face off in tomorrow’s semi-final. Therefore, the small details do count and add up as the week progresses.
For example, in Federer’s win on Monday he covered 400m and 600m less than both Djokovic and Nadal, respectively, which as the oldest man in the draw, will be much-needed energy reserves going into the business end of Wimbledon.
The same can be said for the big three that have dominated the headlines of the football championship this last decade. Dublin, Mayo, and Kerry will surely go up a gear this coming weekend as the Super 8 finally gets under way on Saturday at the neutral venue of Ballybofey for Roscommon against Tyrone at 5pm.
Of course, Cork and Tyrone, in Group 2 with Dublin, will do all they can to be the fourth team in the semi-finals when the quarter-final group stages conclude in the first week of August. This is not to wholly discount Roscommon — this year’s Connacht champions will no doubt fancy themselves — but if we are talking about teams who have another gear in them, one suspects Roscommon may be at full throttle already.
The same can’t be said for Cork or Tyrone who look to be gaining in speed just at the right time. But Group 2 will surely be Dublin’s to win, as they, more than anyone, benefit from the introduction of the Super 8s format.
Where previously they would have to wait for a semi-final to truly gauge where they are at, in terms of championship-winning readiness, this group format gives them ample opportunity to move out of second gear, which has been sufficient in Leinster for many a year now.
Group 1 doesn’t commence until Sunday, back in Ballybofey, where it’s the home venue for Donegal in their opener against Meath at 2pm. Of course, Donegal will try to upset the apple cart in Group 1 where Kerry and Mayo also reside; one fears Meath will endure a painful few weeks.
But each of Mayo, Kerry, and Donegal look to have more in the tank, making this group the one to watch. It is not hard to see how Mayo and Kerry have more gains to be made as their provincial championships continue to be less than inspiring competitions, apart from the odd game or two.
But for Donegal to still have more to come says a lot about where they are at, as Ulster continues to be the most competitive province of the lot, in a lop-sided antiquated qualifying system.
However, the knowledge that one has to go through the gears as the intensity of the competition increases is one thing, the skill of being able to do it a very different prospect altogether.
The easiest and most obvious way to prepare a team or an athlete for this shift in intensity is through additional physically demanding tasks. However, as competition intensifies, especially at the elite level, physical parameters of performance become less of an issue, as the expectation is that those remaining have at least ticked the most obvious box of athletic preparation to get the body ready.
For example, as the best golfers in the world move from Lahinch to North Berwick for this week’s Scottish Open and then back again for The Open in Royal Portrush, in Antrim, the following week, the physical capacity of the players will not be what separates the winners from the also-rans.
It is a given that they are all doing appropriate work in that space nowadays.
The same can be said for the men’s semi-finals at Wimbledon. If physical demands are the determining factor at the elite level, then there are major questions to be asked of those in charge of that job. We know too much about sport science for there to be any acceptable excuse.
And so it leaves us with the top six inches. This remains the least exploited part of performance preparation.
Which teams will infuse even more challenging tasks into training over the coming weeks?
Not physically demanding tasks to flog the system but cognitively demanding tasks to ready the system. Who will train smart, where players will have less time on their feet but in that time will have more to think about and encounter similar scenarios to demands that better opposition will surely present?
That space between the ears still remains the final frontier.