Category Archives: Mental Skills

Something unusual happened in Shanghai on Sunday morning. Roger Federer lost a match. It was his first loss since the French Open and the first time he has lost a final since July, 2003. David Nalbandian beat Federer, 6-7(4), 6-7(11), 6-2, 6-1, 7-6(3), to win the year-end Masters Cup title.

Sometimes it gets boring writing about winning streaks. The same old person wins and you have to think of something new to say about the repeat victor and something hopeful to say about the hapless opponents. This loss is such a unique opportunity that my co-writer, Pat Davis, and I are both covering it. You can read Pat’s take here.

The question is: did Federer lose the match or did Nalbandian win it? Did Federer’s injured ankle prevent him from playing his usual high level of tennis or did Nalbandian play so well that he is a threat to take majors away from Federer in the future?

The answer is: Federer is likely to start another winning streak when the 2006 season starts in January and journalists will again have to think of new ways to describe his superlative play.

The problem was not Federer’s ankle. “No pain. Not real pain, ” he said after the match. Instead, the problem was “Real big, big fatigue.” He was on crutches three weeks ago and last played in a tournament six weeks ago. He wasn’t in match shape.

The question is: did Federer lose the match or did Nalbandian win it?

Federer and Nalbandian have been playing each other since junior tennis. Nalbandian dominated Federer in juniors and won their first five professional matches but Federer has won the last four. Though Federer is gracious, he is not lacking in self confidence. He’s not concerned about Nalbandian: “the way I played him at the US Open, I definitely felt like I’ve got him figured out.”

But Federer didn’t just lose it, Nalbandian did everything he could to take advantage of Federer’s condition and it won him the match. Again and again he sliced drop shots just over the net and ran Federer side to side to tire him out. Every time Federer looked like he was pulling away, Nalbandian made him play one more stroke or stretched the game a few more points to stay right with him. At the end of the first set, Federer won the tiebreaker with an unplayable net chord, both players had fifteen winners and almost identical unforced errors.

At 5-5, 15-15, in the second set, Federer and Nalbandian got into a point that looked like a backhand hitting exercise till Nalbandain pulled a backhand particularly wide. Federer stabbed at the ball getting it just over the net. Nabandian ran in and popped the ball up and Federer hit a lob over his head. Nalbandian ran backwards and hit the ball between his legs and into the net. On the next point Federer hit behind Nalbandian to get double break point but then hit three straight errors. Nalbandian had held serve by hanging around long enough for Federer to make mistakes.

The second set tiebreaker was a knockdown, drag out fight. At 10-9, Nalbandian hit yet another drop shot – his fifth in the tiebreaker. Federer got to it and hit it cross court but Nalbandian returned an even sharper angle cross court, Federer had to go to his knees to get to it, then snatched the ball out of the air for a winner to even the score at 10-10.

Federer won the tiebreaker, 13-11, but the damage was done. The first two sets took over two hours and fifteen minutes to play and Federer started to lose his legs in the third set. His first serve percentage dropped to 45% and he won only 25% of his second serve points. That was unusual enough but then I saw something I’ve never seen in a Federer match. Nalbandian had broken him twice and was serving for the set at 5-2, 30-15 when Federer hit a cross court winner that landed on the line. As he walked along the baseline, Federer flicked his arm at Nalbandian and shouted “shut”, shut up?, then looked at chair umpire Wayne McEwen. McEwen had overruled a few early calls correctly but he had muffed the last three or four. His constant overruling encouraged Nalbandian to question calls and Federer was sick of it. Nalbandian rubbed his chin on his shirt and stood there. After getting over the shock, he might have had an inner smile. Federer was clearly rattled.

Early in the fourth set, Federer called the trainer out to rub some life into his legs but it didn’t work. After Nalbandian got his second break of the set, Federer waved at a few balls but saved his energy for the fifth set, the last set of the match and the season.

…playing an injured opponent can be tricky. You look bad if you lose but you don’t get full credit if you win.

Nalbandian knew his opponent was down and he went on a tear. After going up 4-0 in the fifth set he had won ten straight games. The match appeared to be over. But playing an injured opponent can be tricky. You look bad if you lose but you don’t get full credit if you win. Winning a very important title can be nerve wracking enough without the added pressure. Nalbandian felt the pressure; he hit a few errors and gave Federer an opening.

He hit a drop shot error on break point to give Federer his first game in the set. I’m sure Federer appreciated that, the drop shot had been punishing him the entire match. Two games later, Federer failed to convert his first two break points but Nalbandian gave him another with an error and Federer finally won the game with a forehand down the line. Incredibly enough, the match was back on serve.

Nalbandian was now the one who was rattled. At 5-5, he hit another error to lose the game and let Federer serve for the match. After losing his legs and ten straight games, Federer found the strength somewhere deep inside to win five straight games and come within two points of winning the match. You don’t win thirty-four matches in a row and twenty-four straight finals without a huge measure of pride and desire.

Nalbandian finally collected his mind, “I can’t go home like this, ” he said to himself, and pushed the set to a tiebreaker which he won.

Federer lost the match but we’re left with the same problem: thinking of something new to say about his talent. Maybe it’s not so hard. We’ve talked about his superb movement and graceful strokes, and his ability to break down his opponent. Now we can talk about the depth of his pride and the size of his heart.

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Two French players, Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce, are in the finals of the WTA Championships. Mauresmo beat Maria Sharapova, 7-6(1), 6-3, and Pierce beat Lindsay Davenport, 7-6(5), 7-6(6), in front of a crowd of 8, 723 at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Pierce is arguably American. Her father is American, she was raised in the United States and she lives in Florida. Since her mother is French, she was able to move to France as a junior and get support from the French Tennis Federation. Maria Sharapova is a woman without a nation. She moved from Russia to the US with her father at age seven but she has never played Fed Cup for Russia or the US. Davenport is the only self proclaimed American here.

Maybe that’s what confused the crowd today. Davenport lives down the road in Laguna Beach but the spectators didn’t go crazy for her. Whenever Sharapova celebrated, she turned to her box of supporters and pumped her fist, completely ignoring the crowd. If she were to cut the umbilical chord with her father, Yuri, and engage the crowd, they might embrace her. Pierce is so self-contained, we feel privileged to get the slightest nod or glance our way.

Maybe the crowd would have been more excited if one of the four grand slam winners made it to the semifinals. Three of them are not here, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Serena and Venus Williams, and the fourth, Kim Clijsters, was too tired to play effectively.

Davenport does not like to play in Staples Center. There is no backdrop and the seats go back gradually making depth perception difficult. “I can’t say I’m disappointed to not have to play a match here again, ” she said, “I have struggled every year I’ve played here.” That might explain nine double faults in her round-robin match against Sharapova and four double faults in the first three games today. Not a good idea against Pierce. She is on a roll. She was the only player to win all three of her round-robin matches.

Pierce broke Davenport in her first service game but as Davenport’s serve improved, so did her play. She hit three forehand winners to break back at 4-5. Pierce won the first four points of the tiebreaker but two aces and a service winner took Davenport to 5-6 before Pierce hit a net chord winner for the first set.

We all have ways of dealing with insecurity and doubt. Pierce has chosen faith.

This was a very well played match. In the second game of the second set, thirteen of the eighteen points were decided by winners. Pierce faced three break points in that game but there were no breaks in the second set. Pierce hit 40 winners and had 10 unforced errors for the match. “I don’t know if I have ever done that before, ” Pierce said. She also hit ten aces. After hitting ten aces in yesterday’s match against Mauresmo, Pierce said, you guessed it, “I don’t know if I’ve ever done that before.” A good indication that she is playing some of the best tennis of her career at age thirty.

In the tiebreaker, Davenport and Pierce each started with three winners to get to 3-3. Pierce hit a service winner at 5-5 to get her first match point. On her second, two points later, Davenport hit a forehand long and Pierce was in her first Championships final since 1997.

Pierce has been asked countless times during the tournament to explain her success this year. The answer usually has two parts. First, she said that faith helped her to “to give my best and enjoy it and just leave the rest up to God.” Second, a little part of her began to believe that she can beat players that she’d never beaten before and that part grew with victories then snowballed over time.

We all have ways of dealing with insecurity and doubt. Pierce has chosen faith. She throws her worries and doubts into into the great beyond. Others, Marat Safin, for instance, implode and disintegrate. There is an image of a Safin implosion in Bill Simons excellent article for Inside Tennis, The Dance of Doubt and Certainty. Whether you believe that the mental part of tennis is 90% or 10%, it’s hard to disagree with Simons’s characterization of a successful athlete: “The true combatant is a master of doubt management.”

Amelie Mauresmo has not mastered it yet. During her match with Sharapova, she was down a break in the first set when Sharapova started to hit a lot of errors. Mauresmo took advantage of them to break back at 4-5 to force a tiebtreak. Sharapova won the first point in the tiebreak then hit six straight forehand errors and a double fault to give Mauresmo the first set.

Sharapova strained a pectoral muscle earlier in the year and it started to bother her during the match. “Towards the end of the first set the (pain) gradually started, ” she said, “It affected my serve and my forehand.”

During the second set, Sharapova served in the 70’s and hit high looping shots, it was obvious that something was wrong with her. Mauresmo must have known but it wasn’t enough to hold the demons at bay. Serving for the match with a 5-1 lead, the doubt kicked in. “I could tell she was getting nervous towards the end, ” Sharapova said.

Mauresmo started the game with a double fault and ended with two errors. After getting a match point in the next game, Mauresmo hit popups on successive serves from the weak-limbed Sharapova. Mauresmo managed to hold on in the next game to win the match but if she gets nervous against an injured opponent, how will she beat Pierce, her hard hitting, injury and worry free opponent in tomorrow’s final?

There is an eerie coincidence between this year and last year’s final. During the second set in the match between Serena Williams and Sharapova. Williams injured a ribcage muscle. Despite the fact that Williams could barely serve, she went up 4-0 in the third set before finally losing, 6-4, 2-6, 4-6. Sharapova collapsed in relief rather than celebration when it was over. Sharapova’s father then ran onto the court to hug his daughter in a blatant act of disrespect to Williams who had fought a brave fight. A spectator correctly chided Sharapov as he left the court and they had a shouting match.

When a reporter asked Sharapova after the match if she considered defaulting after her injury flared up, she was offended by the question. “I’m not going to end my year by walking of the court, I can tell you that for sure, ” she said with more than a hint of attitude. Sharapova’s attitude will serve her well. She has a strong game and confidence in herself. But her image belongs to Nike, Canon, Tag Heuer and her father. If she stepped out from behind that image and turned to us during matches, if her father let other suitors court his daughter, she might have a nation to applaud her.

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Maria Sharapova has won a grand slam event but she has never beaten Kim Clijsters. Clijsters has never won a slam event but she’ll get her fifth opportunity to change that if she can beat Sharapova in their semifinal match.

Displaying a total lack of imagination, journalists always ask Clijsters if she is too nice to win the big one. This question implies that the women who have won majors are less than nice. There might be some truth to that. Mary Pierce took two back-to back five-minute timeouts, one for a back injury and one for a thigh strain, after losing the first set in her semifinal match with Elena Dementieva. Her legal, but ungracious, delaying tactic threw Dementieva off her game and played a big part in Pierce’s three set win. But, as Clijsters diplomatically pointed with much more patience than most people would show after being asked the same question ten million times, Roger Federer is a very nice guy and it hasn’t stopped him from winning a whole lot of grand slams.

Neither player looks like they want to win the match at the outset. The first four games are breaks of serve. Clijsters is known for dropping into an impressive but very uncomfortable looking split to get to wide balls. This balletic move only complements her quickness. Sharapova is having trouble keeping her ground strokes in the court and Clijsters’ speed only makes things worse as Sharapova goes for too much to keep the ball away from her.

Clijsters finally holds to go up 3-2 after Sharapova sets her up perfectly by running her right, left and right again to get an open court but hits the closer shot wide.

Sharapova has an additional problem. She strained a pectoral muscle this summer and it seems to be affecting her serve. She fails to hold serve in the first set, wins exactly zero points on her second serve then double faults on set point to go down, 2-6.

Nobody worries about Sharapova’s mental toughness. She’s a fierce competitor who’s managed to win a slam and a tour championship with a somewhat limited game. In the second set, she improves her serve and gets more of her shots in the court at the same time that Clijsters gets more tentative. Uh oh, is Clijsters folding again?

Clijsters regains her aggressiveness as the set goes on and gets three match points with Sharapova serving at 0-40, 5-6. Then comes the longest and best point of the match, a twenty-nine stroke battle that ends with a beautiful Sharapova combination: a moonball followed by a flat inside out forehand and then a drop shot. Sharapova saves the second match point with a moonball to one side and a hard shot to the other and Clijsters gives her the third with an error. Clijsters manages to get two more match points but she hits errors both times and the set goes to a tiebreaker.

Sharapova rides her momentum to a tiebreaker win by swinging for the lines and getting them. She wins the second set, 7-6(4), then goes off for a bathroom break leaving Clijsters with time to think about the five match points she just squandered. This is a career defining moment. Clijsters can come back and take the third set or she can cement her reputation as the sweet girl who can’t win the big one.

Clijsters can come back and take the third set or she can cement her reputation as the sweet girl who can’t win the big one.

Maybe Clijsters’ yearlong layoff for career threatening wrist surgery put tennis in perspective. Maybe the life-changing decision to call off her engagement with Lleyton Hewitt gave her a stronger sense of confidence. Maybe it was just her time. Whatever it was, Clijsters regains her momentum in the third set and Sharapova helps out by winning only one of her thirteen second serve points. Clijsters wins the match, 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-3, and storms into the final with Mary Pierce having removed a large monkey from her back.

The semifinal was the hard lifting for Clijsters. Pierce can’t hit the side of a barn and loses the first set after which she runs off to take a bathroom break. Enough already. Would Oscar De La Hoya leave the ring and take a bathroom break in a twelve round championship boxing match? Would Jeff Gordon stop his car on the track, jump out and get a chiropractic treatment in the middle of a NASCAR race?

The ploy doesn’t work and Clijsters slays any remaining demons to win her first grand slam, 6-3, 6-1, along with a cool 2.2 million dollars, the prize money for the Open plus a 100% bonus for winning the most points in the US Open Series.

This is the single biggest prize ever in women’s sports and it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

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After the first two sets the other night during the Blake-Agassi thriller, I was nearly ready to turn off the TV. Andre was being overpowered, and I did not want to see his demise. Lo and behold, the Aged One mounts a comeback. Both players carried it right down to the wire, in a thrilling fifth set tiebreak. When people say, as they are already, that this is one of the greatest matches ever played at the Open, what they are also implying is that no one choked in this match. Both players rose to the occasion and all their best stuff came out. They both laid it all out there on that court. This is why it will be remembered as a great match.

As Andre said later, “Two guys need to play well.”

We always feel good about matches when we know both guys have played their best. We hate to see someone win because the other player has screwed up. Even if it’s Lleyton Hewitt. Tennis gets great when both sides show perfection. We feel rewarded by that. We have gotten our money’s worth.

Great matches almost always suggest that both players rise to the occasion. Without choking. Why do some players pull it out and others go right into the can? Dealing with choking should be one of the main things that coaches teach about tennis. Right up there with two-handed backhands, or one-handed. Or working on the serve. But people seem reticent to discuss it. It’s a murky, complicated thing, let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. We are manly men, after all. And ballsy women too. Each player has to wrestle with it in his own way. You do it on your own time behind closed doors. Like masturbation and toiletry functions, we presume.

Part of athletes’ fascination with the performance enhancers is based on this desire to avoid the dreaded choke. If we can pump ourselves up to superhuman levels of muscularity, maybe that will protect us, and get us through the tough matches. We won’t have to worry about choking.

Yet athletes are better conditioned than ever before, they are physically as prepared as they will ever be. Still, matches get blown. Something else enters into the equation here. The elusive edge that so many athletes are seeking comes, not from the physical realm, but the mental.

Where does choking get its power from? It’s fear talking to a player, big time. You don’t think inside that you can pull it off. You can feel your nerves building, until you think they are going to run away with you. Tennis is like an obstacle course at times. Many things can come along to distract a player, often at key moments. Often even before you hit the court. Anastasia Myskina’s mother has been ill this season, and it has been mentioned as a cause of her less than excellent year. She could not let it go when she walked onto the court. Your opponent takes a long injury timeout, as Mary Pierce did today during her semifinal match with Elena Dementieva. Certainly the rules allow for it, but it clearly threw a wrench into Elena’s plans for a win. She let it get to her. Or your opponent serves at an abominably slow pace. Or the wind has just picked up, and it’s your turn to serve. Or that Dominik Hrbaty guy has shown up again with another one of his fantastically sculpted new jersies, and if that won’t drive you around the bend, you are probably dead already. The list of distractions goes on and on, and those distractions get under the skin and make you uptight about everything going on.

Fear can also appear in more subtle forms. You have arrived at a key point in the match, your opponent is getting the best of you. You know to counter this that you have to, for instance, come into net more. But basically you’re a baseliner. Normally you come to net once every year. Now you have to step it up, even though it is not your natural style. Can you mentally handle this, or will you muff your chance? David Nalbandian against Roger Federer the other day is a good example of this. Nalbandian, a natural baseliner, looked atrocious at the net in a straight set loss.

All these things have to be worked through. Not choking means you play through all the distractions, you distill it down to the bare moment itself, and in that moment you try to win only one point at a time. You develop a really good case of Tunnel Vision. The other day, Jim Courier commented on this during the Robby Ginepri-Guillermo Coria match. When asked what the guys were feeling on court when the match was on the line, he replied, “This is all about fear.” And, he implied, who will be the better man that day at dealing with his fear.

Mentally the way to deal with fear is, firstly, to acknowledge that you have it. Feel it. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug. Let your body choke a little, so you don’t have to choke a lot. Experience the sensations. Then it is easier to let go. A tense physique is not going to be a good conduit for hitting accurate shots. These little awarenesses can help you relax a bit, you may even start to flow with your shots the way Roger Federer does. You feel like you may even be the ruler of your domain on this day. Hell, tennis may be a wonderful sport after all.

Andre Agassi had another thought on this after his match with James Blake. “It’s about just authentic competition, just getting out there and having respect for the other person, and letting it fly, and letting it be just about the tennis.”

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The Cramps should have been the headline act at Glam Slam, the US Open kickoff party. It looks like the men are setting a record for number of five set matches and number of players going down with cramps.

Paradorn Srichaphan rolled around the court in obvious pain during his four hour and twenty-four minute match with Davide Sanguinetti. After Sanguinetti won the third round match, he hugged Srichaphan as if they’d been through a war together. Nicolas Massu barely made it to the end of the longest match of the tournament, a four hour and thirty-two minute fight with Guillermo Coria in the fourth round. The two almost came to blows after Coria mocked Massu’s gimpiness. Coria won the match but it took a lot out of him. He double faulted on Robbie Ginepri’s fifth match point in their quarterfinal match and served 14 double faults altogether.

Ginepri got another gift in his previous match when Richard Gasquet ran out of gas in the fifth set and lost it 0-6. Interesting to note that the oldest guy here, Andre Agassi, has not slowed down or cramped up. In his first ever five set tiebreaker at the US Open, he beat James Blake in one of those matches you feel fortunate to have watched. Two Americans, Aggasi and Ginepri, will meet in a US Open semifinal for the first time since 1996.

The women play best of three matches, not best of five, and they’ve played plenty of three set matches but also plenty of short, two set matches. The parity in the men’s game is not as apparent in the women’s draw. Today we’re going to look at a match that lasted only one hour and five minutes.

We’ve been picking Amelie Mauresmo’s psyche apart here lately. Let’s look in on her quarterfinals match with Mary Pierce and see how she does. Pierce has been in three consecutive grand slam quarterfinals and made it to the finals at the French Open. She’s playing the best tennis of her career. It should be a tough match but Mauresmo beat Pierce in their two previous meetings this year.

Pierce likes to slam the ball and she starts the match by taking the game to Mauresmo. She hits hard, flat shots that keep Mauresmo from attacking, gets to the net and finishes points off with a funky two-handed backhand volley. She breaks Mauresmo in the first set to go up 4-2.

Mauresmo needs to seize the momentum somehow. She holds serve with an ace, two service winners and a serve and volley then hits four passing shots to break Pierce and get back on serve, 4-5. Pierce applauds Mauresmo’s passing shots. It’s not like Coria and Massu, or Coria and Hewitt – Coria slammed an overhead at Hewitt during their Davis Cup match and mocked his celebrations, or Coria and anyone else these days, for that matter. I notice that Coria made a point of high-fiving Ginepri during their match. That was probably an attempt at image management.

Hitting passing shots is a good idea but it’s not exactly a display of power. Mauresmo has often been faulted for her lack of mental toughness but she also suffers because she doesn’t have a power game. She can serve aces now and then, but she doesn’t have one weapon that anyone fears. Roger Federer is a finesse player too, but the racket speed he generates on his forehand is fearsome and his serve, while not as fast, is just as effective as Andy Roddick’s rockets.

Mauresmo is in the unfortunate position of having the game for red clay, good defense and natural topspin strokes, but not the stomach to deal with the expectations of her fellow citizens in France where the red clay grand slam is played.

Then there is that lack of mental toughness. She gives the break back with two double faults and an error and loses the first set in thirty-seven minutes, 6-4.

The second set is more of the same. Mauresmo double faults twice in her first service game. Two points away from going down 1-5, Mauresmo sets up an easy overhead then hits it at least three feet beyond the baseline. You can hear the collective groan all the way from Flushing, NY, to the Champs d’Elysée. Pierce beats Mauresmo, 6-4, 6-1, in one hour and five minutes.

Mauresmo is in the unfortunate position of having the game for red clay, good defense and natural topspin strokes, but not the stomach to deal with the expectations of her fellow citizens in France where the red clay grand slam is played.

Consider a player like Elena Dementieva. With that serve of hers, she has to be very mentally tough to make the most of everything else in her game. During her quarterfinal match later in the evening with Lindsay Davenport, she sent the third set into a tiebreaker with a double fault when she could have won the match if she’d held serve. It must be brutal to have to play Dementieva. You never know where that serve is going and the second serve snakes away from you after she hits the ball with that low sidearm sling.

And Davenport, she had twice as many errors as Dementieva and couldn’t hit the side of a barn all evening – she only won one game in the first set – then pulled out a marvelous point with three deep shots to alternating corners to draw herself even in the tiebreaker. She was winning more points on Dementieva’s serve than her own. Dementieva managed to pull it together one more time and hit a drop shot then a backhand winner to take the match and get to the semifinals for the second year in a row after serving 12 double faults.

Looking at the power of veteran players like Pierce and Davenport and the power and mental toughness of young players like Dementieva, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Mauresmo gets her grand slam victory.

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