Game, set and match - to love
Released: Monday 2nd July 2012 at 10:15
TENNIS players hoping to keep their anger in check as Wimbledon gets underway may consider the advice of psychologists, whose study reveals that professional male players start losing their competitive edge once they marry.
Emotions have been high on the tennis world’s radar recently with David Nalbandian’s recent outburst at Queen’s final when he was fined for kicking a board in frustration and injuring a linesman, followed by infamous hothead John McEnroe’s warning to Andy Murray to channel his anger to achieve success on court.
Self-control may be one action tennis stars can work on to improve their game, but this may still fall flat if they decide to get hitched, according to the findings of a study at the University of Sunderland, in which man’s evolution plays its part.
The study looked at the performances of the world’s top 100 players in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Singles Rakings at the end of each year from 1995 to 2005, whether they had married and in what year. Also, if they had become a father or had subsequently divorced.
Dr Daniel Farrelly’s data found that players’ ranking points significantly decreased from the year before their marriage to the year after, while there was no such effect over time for the unmarried players of the same age.
From Andre Agassi, who dropped out of the top 100 from a No.1 Seed position after he wedded actress Brooke Shields, to Pete Sampras, who declared in 2001 that ‘enjoying married life has led to a decreased desire to win.
And more recently, Roger Federer married and became a father of twins in 2009, but has not won a major grand slam since 2010 and is now seeded at No.3 in the world from the No.1 spot.
Dr Farrelly, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sunderland, says the reasons behind the change is due to the evolved psychological mechanism that leads such players to devote less time and effort to competition and more to married life, as well as varying testosterone levels.
He explained: “Cultural displays, such as art, science and sport, are proposed to be used by males to compete for potential mates. As a result, the desire to engage in such behaviours will diminish following marriage.
“Our study shows that professional male tennis players perform significantly worse in the year after their marriage compared to the year before, whereas there is no such effect for unmarried players of the same age.
“This explains the results: following marriage, males experience an evolved psychological mechanism that leads to less motivation to engage in intra-sexual competition. Fluctuating testosterone levels are considered as underlying biochemical changes necessary for such mechanisms.”
Evidence suggests that when a male’s mating strategy shifts from acquiring mates to maintaining them, their testosterone levels will drop.
Dr Farrelly added: “This has been shown among married males and males in long-term committed relationships.
“An explanation for this is given by the Challenge hypothesis which states that testosterone levels mediate the trade-off between parenting and mating efforts in males. Also it is known that Performance tennis is positively influenced by testosterone levels.”
Dr Farrelly added that a question arising from the research was whether marriage affected female players’ performance.
However, he said: “We were unable to analyse this as the number of married female players was too small, possibly because females retire at an earlier age than males. There needs to be a larger scale examination in this area.”
Dr Farrelly hopes to look at further studies in this area of male performance in other solo sports such as running, skiing and golf, exploring whether testosterone plays a part.
The research - ‘Marriage affects competitive performance in male tennis players’ - was produced jointly between Dr Farrelly and Daniel Nettle, Professor of Behavioural Science in the Centre for Behaviour & Evolution at Newcastle University.