Down and Out, Down Under
Synopsis: Investors, like some athletes, attempt to use emotions as a weapon to get an edge. It might work sometimes, but over a long career even the brattiest admit they’d have been better off had they cooled down and kept their heads in the game.
Mock….mock….mock. The sound of the tennis balls battering about in the Melbourne sun was trance inducing. It was a hot, hazy day in Australia, roasting waves rising from the hard court that seemed to be melting into a green ooze. It had slowed play, balls seemingly sticking to the court. Mock…mock. And then it stopped, the players went to their chairs and slathered on sunscreen.
After a towel and some water, the American player stood and ambled to the baseline. There, three feet from the lineswoman he stared menacingly at her, bouncing tennis balls onto the face of his racquet, a sour expression on his sun crisped face. Clearly, he disagreed with at least one of her line calls.
“Code violation, unsportsmanlike conduct, warning mister McEnroe,” the chair umpire admonished. Johnny Mac was known to use confrontation and emotion like other players used graphite and oversized racquet heads, pushing the boundaries to legally gain an advantage. Or mostly legally.
Hoots and whistles rained down from the crowd. John McEnroe was a divisive force among fans and players, using his temper as a weapon, psyching himself up, getting his adrenaline going and distracting his opponents. He was good at it too, winning seventy-seven ATP singles titles, and spending one hundred and seventy weeks at #1 in the world. He was also widely recognized as the greatest doubles player of all time. But in the twilight of his career, with his skills on the wane, McEnroe was turning to his confrontational abilities more often, seeking a slight edge to break an opponent’s concentration and allow him to blast a winner or deliver a smashing overhead. And occasionally, he’d do the opposite, expending his own energy in futile rage that ended in an implosion, rather than an explosion.
McEnroe’s verbal barrage was mercifully brief this time and play resumed at its drowsy pace. Mock…. mock… mock. As it was wont to do, Mac’s play improved a bit when the haze of battle cleared. But the invigorating effect was brief, and the day continued to be a long one. Games passed, until they were deep in the fourth set, with McEnroe serving to even it at three games all. If he failed, it would mean a decisive fifth set and at least forty more minutes on the blazing court.
With the game tied at deuce, McEnroe’s first service smacked harmlessly into the net. But his second was true and the two players traded tentative groundstrokes, even more lethargic than the past couple of hours. Then McEnroe floated an easy forehand toward the far sideline. The ball, gleaming and golden kept arcing away, landing eight inches outside the sideline.
McEnroe, unimpressed, delivered heavy retribution to his racquet. It crashed into the conveniently placed court surface. It crumpled. The entire stadium heard the frame give up its always tenuous grip on useful life. Thus, did it die a horrible death, mangled and cooking in the midday sun.
“Code violation, racquet abuse, point penalty Mr. McEnroe,” came the announcement. Unfortunately, that penalty came after he had lost the deuce point, giving the game to Mac’s opponent.
McEnroe’s chin set like quick drying cement. He charged the chair like an angry wombat and exploded into a tirade about the unfairness of it all. This went on for some minutes while tournament referees tried to calm the situation. Things relaxed a bit as he turned from the chair, ready, it seemed, to resume play.
“EXPLETIVE!” Storming back to the baseline McEnroe, uttered one, perhaps two profanities that caused truck drivers to swoon and longshoremen to blush across Australia. They might have rhymed, given the right Aussie accent, with the word ‘mock’.
“Code Violation, Default Mr. McEnroe. Game, set, match.” And thus, on a sweltering day down under on January 21, 1990, the Super Brat became the first player disqualified from a modern Grand Slam tennis match. Once a legend of the game, by that year’s Australian Open, Mac was struggling to maintain his form and hoping for one last good season, perhaps one last Grand Slam title. It was the only reason he’d come to Australia, a tournament he usually skipped. Unfortunately, the heat or the jet lag caused him to be somewhat inattentive to the rules. He thought it took four code violations to receive a default and had neglected a rule change that went into effect late the prior year. Little did he know how hard it is to win tournaments where you are defaulted in the fourth round.
Investors too are always looking for an edge. Today, like Brat wannabes, some are wondering if it isn’t time to hit the showers a bit early. Markets are soaring, and they aren’t sure they want to be around for what happens next. Some have a fear of (market) heights. Others, to put it kindly, are frustrated by the political party in power. Or the political party out of power. Code violation! I don’t care if your particular aggravation is chafing you like those miniature white tennis shorts they wore in the 80s and early 90s, research by Oppenheimer Funds show emotion-based investors struggle mightily with their own performance. They trail all asset classes and even inflation over the past thirty years. Why? Because they use emotions as buy and sell signals. Managing things by yourself and your impassioned strategy can’t even beat inflation? Sounds like it is game, set and match for that plan.
When you reach your own break point, emotions don’t add to your performance, they smash it like a weak overhead lob. Frustrating? Sure, break all the inanimate objects you desire, but find someone to remind you of the rules when necessary. And the first rule is to take the heat without letting your passions prevail.
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