By Will Carlin
At a few minutes before 5pm on a September Saturday in 2011, Novak Djokovic was facing double match point against Roger Federer in the U.S. Open semifinals. Novak Djokovic clenched his jaw, nodded his head and bent down into a crouch to return serve.
At the same stage of the previous year’s semifinal, Djokovic had saved two match points against Federer and gone on to win, and though the familiarity of the situation might have given some hard core Djokovic fans a ray of hope, a replay seemed highly implausible.
A game earlier, with Djokovic serving at 3-4, he had been broken at love with two mishit forehands and a double fault on a second serve that missed the line by about a foot. In this game, after winning the first point on a Federer error, Djokovic had been unable to get back three straight serves.
The New York fans, who had long adored Federer, were ready to explode as their favorite looked ready to put aside the frustration of the previous year, make his twenty-fourth Grand Slam final and set up a dream final against Rafael Nadal.
Federer took a little bit off the serve but placed it out wide to Djokovic’s forehand. Djokovic took a big step into the doubles alley to meet the ball. Once there, he turned violently on the 108 mph serve, adding both velocity and speed as he unleashed a forehand cross-court that screamed across the court and barely nicked the line.
The crowd—and Federer—was stunned.
Djokovic was aware of the moment; he raised his hands to the crowd, almost forcing them to acknowledge the moment and show him some love. A little less than ten minutes later, Djokovic had completed the epic comeback and beaten Federer for the second straight year.
After the match, Djokovic was asked about his mindset before he hit the return that has since gone into the annals of great tennis shots. “I would lie if I say I didn’t think I’m going to lose,” he said.
And perhaps that was the key.
Both Federer and Djokovic were actually acting in concert with an economic and decision theory principle called loss aversion.
First demonstrated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in a series of experiments in 1984, loss aversion refers to what appears to be an evolutionary human preference for avoiding losses to acquiring gains.
Let’s say that you are offered the chance to participate in one of two games. In the first, a researcher flips a coin and says that you will get $100 if it lands heads and nothing if tails. In the second version, the researcher first gives you $100 and then flips the coin. If it lands heads, you owe nothing, but if it lands tails, you have to pay back the $100. Despite the fact that the end result is the same in each experiment, most people greatly prefer the first game over the second.
The pain of losing is far more powerful than the pleasure of winning.
In another study done by two Wharton economics professors, home owners looking to sell preferred to keep their houses on the market, even when they were continuing to incur maintenance and mortgage costs, rather than drop the price below what they paid. Avoiding the pain of losing was more important than the actual financial impact.
In their book, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz, devote a whole chapter to the effect of loss aversion in sports. At one point, they ask readers to consider their reaction as a fan:
“Your favorite NFL team is winning 30-3, and you’re justifiably confident that the game is in the bag. Suddenly the opposition stages a fierce comeback to close the score to 30-27, and you’re in panic mode. It turns out that your team hangs on for the win, but you’re probably left feeling…a bit hollow, less elated…than relieved and thankful…Contrast this with what happens when two teams are locked in combat for hours. The lead alternates. Momentum fluctuates. Tension escalates. With the score tied 27-27, your team marches downfield and kicks a game winning field goal as time expires.”
They make the point that although the final score is the same, as each transpires, our expectations adjust. In the first game, we are counting on the win. When that win is threatened, we therefore face a loss. But in the close game, we never got to assume that the win was ours, so when the win comes, we feel triumphant.
They also point out that when we are threatened with a loss, we tend to be more aggressive in the face of that loss. And when we have a win “in hand” we tend to more conservative in order to hold on.
That’s why it is almost easier to play from behind. We aren’t counting on the win, so we can be looser and more willing to take chances. By contrast, when we reach match point, for example, it is hard not to count the win as ours, and we are naturally more conservative in trying to hold onto what we are already counting as a win.
Novak Djokovic already was counting his semifinal as a loss; Federer as a win. Federer served ever so slightly more carefully, and Djokovic was loose and aggressive.
It would be easy to credit Novak for nerves of steel or to blame Roger for letting up.
Turns out, it was just a remarkable demonstration of something they have in common.