As Sigmund Freud said, “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.”
Serena Williams has a recurring nightmare in which she reaches a Grand Slam final — often in Australia — and must leave the country. She departs, but can’t return in time to play her match and is defaulted.
“It’s just the worst dream ever,” said No. 1 Williams. “It’s very disturbing.”
American John Isner has dreamed of showing up to play with two of the same shoe.
Tim Smyczek, an American ranked No. 90, has a recurring dream where he walks onto a major show court only to realize he’s not only missing shoes but wearing no clothes at all.
“I wake up and make sure I have pants on,” he says.
Thankfully, Smyczek also has had several vivid dreams of winning Wimbledon.
Dreams, of course, are the concealed manifestations of our internal world. It’s no surprise that world-class athletes, with their daily performance pressures and strict regimens, would have an active subconscious.
“Athletes are super perfectionists,” says JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychologist that counsels Olympic athletes. “If one little thing doesn’t go right then they get stressed,” adds the author of Your Performing Edge.
Interviews with more than a dozen players about their tennis-related dreams reveal some common themes: tardiness, embarrassment, lack of preparation, facing impossible situations.
Some are recurring. Some are one-offs. Most contain angst.
Former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic once dreamed she showed up at Wimbledon only to find Andy Roddick as her opponent in the draw.
“I was like, “How can I return his serve?” said the eighth-ranked Serb.
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Mike Bryan, the No. 1 ranked doubles player with twin brother Bob Bryan, says he has a recurring nightmare where he is forced to play the deciding fifth singles match at a Davis Cup tie.
“I’m hobbling around, cramping, the crowd is booing, Bob is on the sideline shaking his head,” he said. “I wake up sweating.”
But the brothers, who play in an amateur band, have more nightmares about performing music.
“I’m on stage and I’m just butchering it,” says Mike, who plays the drums and guitar.
Russia’s Maria Sharapova and her Bulgarian boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov share the same dream: They become lost in maze of hallways and can’t find their way to the court.
According to Max Trenerry, a sports psychologist and clinical neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the subliminal anxieties expressed mimic those faced by everyday people.
“These aren’t very different from dreams a lot of us have when we know we have something big coming up, whether it’s a chemistry exam, a wedding or some other event where we have to perform,” he said.
Of course, the stakes are ratcheted up. Livelihoods depend on it.
Jeff Greenwald, a San Francisco Bay Area-based psychotherapist and performance consultant, says unsettling dreams validate the stress, vulnerability and uncertainty many athletes feel but filter out. They are a normal way to process doubts.
“Fear of failure is always staring these players in the face,” said Greenwald, a former men’s under-35 world No. 1. “The brain likes to know the outcome and sport has this gap where you are waiting and anticipating. The subconscious likes to chew on some of these anxieties.”
They can also be a helpful warning of what’s ahead.
“It’s not unlike a surgeon who goes through a checklist and if something is out of place goes back and fixes it so that everything is fine,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Trenerry.
A number of athletes seem to filter everything. Several said they either don’t remember dreams or don’t have any in a tennis context.
Count Novak Djokovic among them.
Instead, the three-time defending Australian Open champ from Serbia says he dreams often about animals – running with them, being chased by them, communicating with them.
“Big animals,” No. 2 Djokovic says. “Sometimes sharks in the water.”
Considering his cool grace on the court, it will shock few that Roger Federer hardly bats an eye once he’s tucked into bed.
“I’ve slept well ever since I’m little and I don’t remember dreams,” says the 17-time Grand Slam winner from Switzerland.
Waking hours? That’s different.
Federer occasionally mind-trips himself into thinking he’ll open his racket bag for a match and find all his strings have been cut out.
“I check. I double check sometimes,” he says. “That’s not a dream. That’s paranoia.”