mental toughness

Meet Me in the Middle: Venus’ Career Crossroads

Venus Williams has a lot of experience dealing with little sisters.

Prior to first ball at Roland Garros, she had lost just four matches in her career to notable ‘little sisters.’ Magdalena Maleeva scored three wins against Venus in her career, while Kateryna Bondarenko also notched a victory during the Ukrainian’s career-best season in 2009.

The elephant in the room? Well, let’s just say Venus has had the most on-court success against the little sisters that didn’t grow up in her household.

When the draw was released for this year’s tournament, she found herself pitted up against another little sister in Urszula Radwanska. Like her elder sister Agnieszka, the Pole found great success on the junior circuit; however, she has struggled much more with translating this success to the WTA level, due to both a variety of injuries and a volatile on-court personality. In a match full of drama and plot twists, the two sisters battled it out for over three hours on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Each time Radwanska took a lead, Williams hit back; Radwanska’s level stayed much more even over the three hour, 19-minute contest and in the fading light of the Parisian evening, she finally pulled off the 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 victory.

Give credit where it’s due; it was finally Urszula’s time to shine on a big stage. While it seems unlikely that she will match or eclipse her elder sister’s accomplishments, as Serena did to Venus, she did show one thing that Agnieszka has become famous for: mental toughness. The younger Radwanska, who has capitulated in matches of note numerous times in her young career, could’ve easily snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite nearing tears in parts, she held firm; when all the stars align for an upset, the underdog still has to see it through. Nonetheless, much of the narrative that followed was largely focused on Williams, while the victor was barely an afterthought.

Struggling with a back injury since April and having played just one match on red clay prior to Roland Garros, Venus’ preparation was less than ideal. The murmurs and the whispers of the ‘r-word’, both of which have followed the elder Williams sister since her return to the game after a Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosis in 2011, returned just a bit louder. While Venus’ mind is willing, her body says differently. She looked exhausted after every long rally, but still fought on for three hours. She clearly loves the game, but to say she’s still out there for ‘fun’ is misguided at best. She’s a competitor, a champion; she steps on the court believing she can win and still has a deep desire to do so. It’s highly unlikely that she enjoys the physically exhausting, mentally draining struggle that professional tennis often is, especially when coming out on the losing end.

On the other side of the coin, her achievements speak for themselves. She’s a seven-time grand slam champion and has every right to decide for herself when to hang up her rackets, whether just in singles or entirely. Venus Williams doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Long considered a role model of grace and class for young players, fighting spirit and professionalism has always categorized her career; this has particularly shown through over the past 18 months. If anything, this match was the perfect storm of Venus’ frustrations with poor form, as well as the stubbornness and persistence that has made her a champion.

“My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am,” she said, following the match. “But that’s all I had.”

If there’s anything to take away from the twilight of Venus Williams’ career, it’s the need for a middle ground. Those calling for her to retire need to gain some perspective, but so do those who believe she can still contend for the biggest titles in singles. Her A-game and Z-game have always been separated by inches. No matter how great she is, the one opponent she’ll never beat is Father Time. As we all know, however, the Williams sisters have made a career of overcoming adversity by making adjustments. Tell them they can’t, and they will find a way. It’s foolish to expect Venus to be the player she once was, but it is perhaps even more so to expect her to fall down, and stay down, after another bump in the road.

Serena Williams: Nothing Left To Prove

As I watched Serena Williams take on Johanna Larsson during last weekend’s USA/Sweden Fed Cup tie, I will admit I was surprised by the level of her intensity. Given where she was, playing a relegation rubber in front of a rain-affected crowd,  it seemed – how does one put this? – out of character.

Surely, I jest. Anyone who has watched even a smattering of tennis in the last decade can attest to the intensity this living legend possesses. Such intensity almost single-handedly took her to the pinnacle of the sport and helped her through the darker days, both on and off the court. It never mattered her shape, scoreline, or  state of mind. It mattered even less who was across the net, be she rival or sister, Venus. In a game where many have been lambasted for their lack of mental toughness,  Serena was the WTA’s rock, who relied on her relentless intensity and competitive fire to finish off many a tough match.

How has she been able to do these incredible things for so long? It could be said that what has kept her at the top of the sport for nearly 15 years has been what could be deemed an “economy of intensity.” Williams has made a career out of bringing her best when it matters the most. Arguably our sport’s biggest star (at least in North America), she shapes her seasons around the Slams, peaking at the right time during those all-important two week stretches.

This extreme prioritizing has all but cemented her place in history, but often created a few problems for her in the present. Those who tuned in solely during the Grand Slams (or even those with a more comprehensive view of the sport) would see the most dominant player in the game ranked outside the top 3 and wonder “why?” A cursory glance at her results outside of the Slams would reveal a fair share of no-shows (she essentially took herself out of the race for year-end No. 1 when she withdrew from the Fall Asian swing) and shocking losses (Austrian journeywoman Sybille Bammer retired in 2011 undefeated against her).

A desire to explain this vast incongruity shifted the blame from her comparative lack of focus on a smaller stage to a lack of commitment to be a full-time tennis player. This truism dates back to 2006, when Chris Evert took to Tennis Magazine to write an open letter to Williams questioning her desire. At that point, she had won seven major singles titles, yet at the time, the tennis world felt gypped, and that Serena still had something to prove.

For all she has accomplished since then, it has been difficult for Serena to shake that stick.

Yet, for any of us to fall back on this notion is to ignore this latest incarnation of Serena Williams. The veteran of 30 who fought off a toe injury that led to a pulmonary embolism only to find herself back at No. 1 two years later. The woman who shed tears after her first Wimbledon match after that lay-off, and again when she was told of her return to the top of the rankings in Doha.

What more does she need to do to prove how much she wants to be here?

Against Larsson, she celebrated her good play, admonished herself for her errors, and was jubilant in a victory that tied the US with Sweden at one match apiece. We have been so conditioned to expect a flat, even blasé Serena show up on a smaller stage that this “new” Serena continues to shock us. But should we really be so surprised? When we remember who she is, what she’s been through, her love for the game is suddenly apparent. And after 15 years, the sport should be grateful that that love is stronger than ever.

STOSUR GOES FROM PRETENDER TO CONTENDER: THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Stosur Breakthrough – As the dust begins to settle after a fantastic, albeit wet two weeks in Paris, I wanted to take a moment to tip my hat to a handful of individuals who have proved their mettle at this year’s Roland Garros.  First and foremost, I have to start with Sam Stosur. Over the course of her career, the Aussie has shown glimpses of what could be, but her fitness was always slightly suspect and her mental toughness questionable. After stringing together some nice wins over the course of her 2010 season, however, Stosur looks like she might have finally put all of the pieces together. Her gritty win over Justine Henin in the round of 16 was impressive, but her win over Serena Williams in the quarters is where she crossed the line from being a pretender to a contender. Having lost the second set to Williams after serving for the match, as well as losing the early break in the third, the Sam Stosur of old would have crumbled.  Congratulations to her for finding her resolve, and here’s hoping she’s soon to be adding Grand Slam champion to her résumé.

Super Soderling – Robin Soderling momentarily made the world take notice when he dumped out 4-time defending champion Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open, but it wasn’t long before he began to fade off the radar. At the 2010 French Open, there were only mere murmurs of what he had done a year ago, but on Tuesday, the big-swinging Swede reminded everyone that he’s capable of slaying dragons on the biggest stages in the sport. Though he was 0-12 against Roger Federer, Soderling showed great resolve in his four-set, rain-interrupted quarterfinal victory over the world No. 1. Even more impressive, Soderling fought against history, as he snapped Federer’s streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals. Even if he ultimately doesn’t reach the final, there’s little doubt that Soderling is looking more and more like he’s ready to make a move into the world’s top 5.

Awesome Austrian – The French Open has seen its share of surprise semifinalists, finalists, and champions, but I doubt there are too many out there who had Austrian Jurgen Melzer penciled in for a semifinal berth. Melzer has had some hard fought wins en route to his best showing at a major, as well as some stellar victories, including a straight sets win over Spaniard David Ferrer.  But the match that Melzer is to be most commended for is the match that saw him reach the semis, his come-from-behind five-set thriller over Novak Djokovic. Granted, Djokovic is a shadow of the player that he was two years ago, but any time a player fights back from a two set deficit, he is to be applauded.

Last American Standing – Props are in order for American Robby Ginepri, the only American to survive through to the round of 16. With only one tour-level match victory under his belt in 2010, Ginepri could not have come in to Roland Garros on a lower note.  He suddenly found his game at the perfect moment, however, stringing together some solid victories, including a five-set see-saw match over former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.  Hopefully for Ginepri, this is going to be a turning point in his season.

Calling Time – In an honorable mention, I have to tip my hat off to chair umpire Carlos Ramos who had the guts to call a big star like Rafael Nadal on violating the time rule between points in his match against Nicolas Almagro, not just once, but twice.  As mentioned before, one of my biggest pet peeves is that some players do get by with abusing the clock, which in my opinion, is a form of soft cheating.  Hopefully Ramos’ enforcement of this rule wasn’t a one-off and is something that will be applied more frequently across the board for players ranked both high and low.

PRAISE TO ANA IVANOVIC: THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Serbian Turnaround – Over the course of the last year or so, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic have experienced varying degrees of a downward spiral in their careers, but signs seem to indicate that they are well on their way to turning things around.  Earlier this spring, Jankovic snagged the Indian Wells title, and she showed great mental toughness to defeat both Williams sisters back-to-back in Rome.  With a few more big wins under her belt, she may just find the consistency that took her to the top of the game in 2008.  My bigger praise, however, has to go to Ana Ivanovic.  While she lost early in Madrid to countrywoman Jankovic, she did put together a great run in Rome that included wins over Azarenka, Dementieva, and Petrova.  She’s gotten herself a new coach, she’s lost some weight, and most importantly, her mindset couldn’t be better.  Ivanovic acknowledges that she’s faced her worst fear in experiencing her playing slump and is ready to begin the climb back up the rankings.  Kudos to both, and I hope that they’ll once again strongly factor into the top of the women’s game.

Chaos Reigns – Roland Garros is just over a week away, and with the decimation of the seeds in Madrid, the women’s field couldn’t look more open. After winning Stuttgart, many (myself included) thought that perhaps Justine Henin was worthy to wear one of the heavy favorite tags, but her upset by Aravane Rezai, which included a bagel in the third, might suggest otherwise.  Serena Williams has looked decent for a player who hasn’t competed since the Australian Open, but with her failure to twice serve out the match against Jelena Jankovic in Rome and a listless performance against an inspired Nadia Petrova in Madrid, she hasn’t exactly looked solid.  Throw in that names like Wozniaki, Sharapova, Safina, Dementieva, Kutznetsova, and last week’s Rome champion Martinez Sanchez have all made an early exit in Madrid, and the time may be ripe for a dark horse to step up and take her first Slam victory at the second major of the year.  And yes, I realize that the seeds that have fallen in Madrid haven’t exactly had the greatest past couple of months, but that only sets the stage further for a surprise victor or finalist in Paris.  But then again, the champions are champions because they can turn it on when it counts.  One thing is for sure…it should be an interesting two weeks at the French Open.

Turning Back the Clock – First there was the return of Kim Clijsters that was then followed by the comeback of Justine Henin. Now there’s another news item that harks back to days gone by. With her three-set victory over Francesca Schiavone this week in Madrid, Venus Williams has guaranteed that she will be the No. 2 player in the world when the new rankings come out on Monday. Younger sister Serena currently holds the No. 1 ranking, and the occasion will mark the first time since May 2003 that the sisters have held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots.  While the Williams sisters aren’t dominating the game as they once did when they previously held the world’s top rankings, their longevity and ability to come up big on the sport’s grandest stages, which has led to their return to the top, deserve tremendous applause.

Zero Pressure – That’s what American Andy Roddick should be feeling as he goes into Roland Garros. Roddick opted to skip Monte Carlo and Rome and do his Paris preparation in the Spanish capital. A stomach virus has since forced him to alter his plans, however, as the virus resulted in his withdrawal from the Madrid Masters before even playing a single match. Not that Roddick has probably ever held great expectations on the red dirt, given that it is his worst surface, but this year in particular he should really be swinging freely. Who knows? Perhaps possibly mental lower expectations will ultimately lead Roddick to his best finish in Paris.

Off into the Sunset? – A lot of tennis fans, myself included, are wondering when Spaniard Carlos Moya will decide to hang up his racquet.  The 33-year-old Moya has rarely played in recent months, and his showing against Benjamin Becker this week was dismal. One wonders if he is able to play Roland Garros, which is currently his plan, if that won’t be the last we see of him.  Having won a major, reaching the No. 1 world ranking, and even winning the Davis Cup, Moya has nothing left to prove. And with Moya and his girlfriend Carolina Cerezuela expecting their first child later this year, he may find it the perfect time to call it a career.