Category Archives: Mental Skills

Amelie Mauresmo probably doesn’t appreciate being analyzed to death. She is no doubt sick of people trying to figure out why she can’t win the big one. But it’s hard to resist poking and probing her psyche because she’s so talented and yet so mentally fragile.

Pat Davis, the co-writer of this column, captured this conundrum exceptionally well in her column, Analyzing Amelie. Unfortunately for Amelie, I have even more to say about it.

Pat thinks that the only reason a player is out on the court is to win a championship. In her view: “That’s the problem with her game. Amelie can’t really go in for the kill. She can’t even say she’d kick a little butt or two. Well, then why are you here? What are you doing on the tennis court?”

I disagree. Not everyone is on the tour to be the top player. Brad Gilbert tells the story of an agent who asked Gilbert to call his client, an ATP tour player, about the possibility of Gilbert coaching him. During the phone conversation the player told Gilbert that he didn’t want to be number one, he was comfortable where he was. Gilbert decided not to coach him.

Most every other player would tell you that they’re out there to get the number one ranking. They don’t say to themselves, “I’m comfortable being the forty-third ranked player, ” because that kind of thinking wouldn’t be enough to push you through endless practices and traveling and the likelihood that most tournaments will end with a loss. But underlying that goal is a battle with the many parts of your personality tearing you this way and that and generally distracting you from a one-pointed focus on winning. A bad temper, deep insecurity, an overbearing parent. The distractions can take many forms.

Not everyone is on the tour to be the top player.

Look at Marat Safin. His biggest battle is finding a calm enough place within himself to get through a tennis match without a major temper tantrum. His backhand doesn’t need any help, his state of mind does.

Amelie Mauresmo’s biggest battle is finding that part of herself that wants to smash her opponent to bits when the championship is on the line. It may not exist and she may end her career never having won a slam. But she has battled her demons and overcome her insecurities so successfully that only one or two women on the planet can play tennis at a higher level.

The stated goal may be the number one ranking but the result is often the state of mind you reach from working towards that goal.

In the golden age of Australian tennis, players like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and Lew Hoad (the list goes on and on) prized fraternalism and good manners. Tennis was a way to build character. In his book, Jimmy Connors Save My Life, Joel Drucker tells a story about Australian player John Newcombe. After losing a grand slam final to Jimmy Connors, Newcombe was partying in his hotel suite with his Australian buddies when they decided that Newcombe should go to Jimmy Connors room and congratulate him on his victory. Connors was alone in his room with his mother. Newcombe thought that was rather sad.

Would you be happier losing a slam title yet still be able celebrate getting to the final and have friends to celebrate with, or win the title but do so by isolating yourself so much that you’re left with only your mother, who loves you no matter what, to toast your victory.

Winning a grand slam doesn’t necessarily make you a happy, well-adjusted person. That comes from being comfortable with yourself, choosing goals that are close to your heart and doing everything possible to reach them. Maybe this is the better measure of a successful career.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 244 user reviews.

Lately my co-writer, Nina Rota, and I have been discussing the career of Amelie Mauresmo, both her playing style and her persona as a female sports personality. She is an interesting player to examine, because she has a ton of talent, and yet we feel she can’t consistently put it out there enough to start winning the big tournaments. Something seems to tie her up. We want to explore that now in this column.

We are both struck by the rather obvious dichotomy in Amelie’s personality: at times she is all strength and power on the court, and then suddenly it all melts away. Her shots become tepid. The creampuff interior takes over the girl with the strong, almost masculine body. It’s as if her body gets handcuffed by its own mind.

I think Amelie is at war with her body. Her mind wants to do one thing with the racquet, her body another. She’s got to decide who’s in charge here. Her body is, has been, developed to be capable of bringing a complete game to the tour. She can really do it all. She is big, she is fast, she has a good strong serve, she can crush you with the forehand, yet her backhand slice shot can be rather delicate and she has a wonderful one-hand topspin backhand as well. One-handers are especially lovely in my book anyway, hers is really nice. She can play net, but she seems happy staying in the backcourt.

So, what’s her problem? Why hasn’t she won the French twice now, and maybe the Aussie at least once? I keep waiting along with the rest of us, I keep hoping things will change for her, that we can rub the magic lamp and out will come finally a wonderfully successful genie of a tennis player, who can show us what it’s like when a really talented female player puts it all together.

Dammit, I want my payoff with this woman. Capriati finally delivered, ditto Davenport. Venus is starting to deliver again. Probably more women players too than I can think of now.

It’s Amelie’s turn. Step up to the plate, as we say in American baseball.

“I need to play with more…aggressivity.” So said Amelie in a TV interview I heard during one of her matches. I remember being charmed by her quaint inventiveness with the English language. And she was certainly defining her difficulty very well. But looking at it now, this comment oddly enough shows her real attitude exactly. She’s speaking with the heart of a Frenchwoman here, swept up as always by the drama of the intellect, the idea of ideas.

She hadn’t a clue what real aggression is. It’s just an idea to her. Instead of wooing me with a lovely turn of phrase, why not come out with, “I’m going to attack her backhand, I’m going to get the returns in play….I’m basically going to rip her a new one with my serve and volley, which I am going to do a lot of in this match.”

Pete Sampras once said, on his upcoming match with Jaime Fillol, that he “was going to go out there and kick his little butt.” I was surprised they let it pass the censor, although Pete did say it with a funny hint of the sarcasm I had heard about but don’t hear often enough.

Now, I pose a question here to the readers: who is more likely to win the match? The guy who kicks butt, or the one who speaks of “aggressivity.”

Who would you put your money on?

That’s the problem with her game. Amelie can’t really go in for the kill. She can’t even say she’d kick a little butt or two. Well, then why are you here? What are you doing on the tennis court?

Peter O’Toole once said that an actor who “can’t go onstage feeling he’s king and fully in charge shouldn’t be out there.”

She lets down in big moments because she is not fully committed to the idea of taking victory yet.

If she’s not careful, Amelie is going to be known as the biggest choker in the game, women’s and men’s tours.

I feel Amelie’s lesbianism may factor into this discussion. In Camille Paglia’s book of essays, Vamps and Tramps, there is a passage discussing Martina Navratilova and her rivalry with Chris Evert. Paglia describes the contradiction between the two, and the reversal of expected roles. Navratilova is the swashbuckling, aggressive dyke tennis player, and Evert is the ice queen, heterosexual groundstroker. Yet Navratilova was the one who broke down in tears if she lost a slam final. Evert was the one who hung tougher emotionally. I recall an early match from her career, when Chris was down match point and 2-5. She pulled herself back and won the match.

My take on Amelie is that, from early childhood, she was perceived as being athletically talented and encouraged to pursue sports. It was ok for her to develop musculature. But the more the muscles developed, perhaps it made it more difficult to reach that female inner part, it somehow got a bit lost in the excitement of a physical life. I imagine the French tolerated her rather masculine appearance. They are more willing to accept male energy when it appears in women, as if often does, than Americans.

Some part of Amelie may want to get off that fast-moving train. Amelie was taught how to be strong and muscular, but not how to deal with the fact she is also a woman. And a lesbian as well. How to incorporate that in such a physical life? It’s difficult, and when the burden is too great, she loses. She lets herself lose it, she chooses to screw things up as it were. There is pressure and more responsibility when you win. Just ask Kuznetsova, who has had a terrible season since winning the U.S. Open last year. This week she lost in the first round of the Open. Amelie views it with trepidation.

She’s got to get over this hurdle. It’s a mental thing. This is my take on it.

If I were coaching Amelie, what would I tell her? This past week I’ve heard Brad Gilbert covering a number of the men’s and women’s matches from the east coast, and I thought he would be a perfect man to ask about Amelie. Lo and behold, he volunteered his own opinion when Amelie played at the Pilot Pen last week.

Brad said he would work on her serve, which he thinks is not nearly as powerful as it could be. He would juice up the first serve, and try to get her to do more with her rather weak second serve. Basically, it sounds like Brad wants to tweak her game a bit, he thinks they are small adjustments but crucial when it comes to deciding who wins a Slam and who doesn’t.

I would take the critique a few steps further. The lack of power Amelie shows in her serving game sometimes is also reflected by her other “loopy” style of hitting the ball. Everything seems to have a ton of topsin on it, including her serve. Now topspin can be a wonderful thing, so they tell me. Having grown up in the era of the serve and volley game, I found the arrival of Mr. Borg both fascinating and rather perplexing. No one really uttered the word “topspin” before he came along. The main reason you want topspin is to give yourself a margin of error. But how much margin does Amelie need before she starts sacrificing power for control?

Amelie needs to reclaim her power. This would be more than just a little “tweaking” of her game. She may need to rework her swing, which is very elongated. I would try to work with her on getting more flatness on her forehand shot. Go for more power in other words. I noticed in her play the last few weeks that, when she encounters a rival equal to her like Henin-Hardenne, she has a tendency to hit topspin forehands which may confound nine out of ten of the other women on tour. But when she hits the other big girls in the draw, that loopiness won’t work. Her shots tend to sit up, and Henin-Hardenne was able to really drive them back for winners.

Some coach needs to come into Amelie’s life who can tell her, day after day, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight, flat line. Draw her a picture if you need to. In an ideal world, she should be coached by someone like Jimmy Connors, who knew all about flat, driven shots and how to crush his opponents. The fact he went out and totally decimated a wonderful player and a gentleman like Ken Rosewall suggests to me he’s the perfect guy for a player like Amelie. He had no qualms at all. Amelie has qualms up her wazoo, I would guess.

She needs to get over that. Get her off the baseline. A little man in a red cape with a triton should run along the baseline and prod her in the butt each time she’s inclined to retreat behind the baseline.

Make her come to net more. She so dominates the lesser players in the early rounds of tournaments, that I am surprised she does not try and work on her game more during those matches. They are learning opportunities. She should practice serving and volleying on them. As a female player, you can still do that in the early rounds. It’s not like the men’s field, which is now solid just about from top to bottom of an average tournament. Any guy can almost beat any guy. You have to play for real, no practicing allowed.

Topspin doesn’t have to be floating loopiness. Look at Nadal’s game, he hits a ton of topspin too, but it has tremendous bite on it. I don’t want to change his game to make him hit more flat drives. I would be terrified if Nadal learns how to hit a flat drive. The ball may end up travelling at the speed of sound. God help us. Ditto Fernando Gonzalez’s forehand. Topspin for sure, but it is the scariest looking shot, as McEnroe said once, in tennis today.

I would work with her on her attitude. Against a match last week with Medina-Garrigues of Spain, commentator Mary Jo Hernandez observed that Amelie never really went for her shots. She kept getting the ball in play, hoping her opponent would miss. Amelie should be imposing her game. Even when she had break points, Amelie was not being aggressive enough.

Just for the hell of it I focused on watching only her legs move. This was against the big newcomer Groenefeld, whom Amelie should have been pushing around from the start. But she wasn’t. Her tendency is to want to hug the baseline. And not even the baseline: often she drifts several feet in back of it. She would advance a step or two as she hits the ball, but then she retreats behind the baseline.

The problem with Amelie is not in her body, it’s in her mind. But how do you change that without leaving the woman a complete basket case? Does her being gay factor in here at all? Does loving women mean you can’t go on there on a court and crush them good?

If I sound exasperated with Amelie Mauresmo, it’s because I am. If she were like Amanda Coetzer in build, small in stature without any “power” shots, I wouldn’t care as much about her game. But she’s 5’9″, strong as a rock, she should really be wailing on the ball, and eager to rush the net every chance she gets.

Everything about this woman’s game says, “I am going to be in your face!” Power everywhere you look.

But the attitude keeps her from achieving that.

Why she hasn’t reconciled this is one of the greatest mysteries in women’s tennis today.

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Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 155 user reviews.

Amelie Mauresmo is one of the few top women players who’s not injured or recovering from an injury going into the US Open. Maria Sharapova is recovering from a strained pectoral muscle. Mary Pierce strained her right thigh winning the title at the Acura Classic and hasn’t played since. Last year’s champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, strained her back and is already out of the Open having lost in the first round, the first time that has ever happened. Venus Williams has had the flu and Serena, well, who knows what the problem is this time.

Lindsay Davenport also had a sore back but she won last week at the Pilot Pen so her back must be okay. Davenport does not seem to have the steam to finish the championship match at a slam, though. She ran out of gas in the final at the Australian and lost to Venus in a brilliant final at Wimbledon after winning the first set. Katrina the mighty storm could make it’s way up to New York and dump some rain on this event causing delays which might force players to finish one match and play another on the same day. Not a good scenario for Davenport.

Davenport doesn’t meet anyone tough in her Open draw until Mauresmo in the semifinals but first Mauresmo has to get past Justine Henin-Hardenne and even if she does, she’s not likely to beat Davenport. Mauresmo was the loser in the Pilot Pen final and a look at that match goes a long way in explaining why Mauresmo is part of that unfortunate group of players who get asked the same question in every interview, “You’re a very good player who’s never won a slam. Could this be your year to win one?”

Davenport pushed Mauresmo all over the court. She hit a winner on the very first point of the match. Mauresmo couldn’t serve and volley all the time because the court is slow enough for Davenport to run balls down but she should have gone for winners whenever possible, snuck in to the net and approached off the return of serve if she wanted to beat Davenport for the first time in five years. She finally approached off the return in the sixth game but she kept looping shots and hitting backhand slices instead of going for winners. She had a chance to win the first set but by the second set, Davenport was on a roll. She ended up with 40 winners versus 17 for Mauresmo and she also came to the net more often winning 85% of her points there.

It’s tough enough to have broad shoulders and a muscly body even without Martina Hingis calling you “half a man.” If you are also a lesbian, we have an additional set of roles for you to fill. You are no doubt butch and you probably like to be on top.

Mauresmo is an interesting case. She has all the talent in the world, she’s big and strong, she can run balls down and she hits every stroke in the book, but she may suffer from our expectations of her.

Competitive sports values a strong physical build combined with an aggressive manner. You can have an aggressive manner without a strong physical build – look at Lleyton Hewitt – but if you have a strong physical build without the aggressive manner, we will be disappointed in you. We expect one to follow from the other.

It’s tough enough to have broad shoulders and a muscly body even without Martina Hingis calling you “half a man.” If you are also a lesbian, we have an additional set of roles for you to fill. You are no doubt butch and you probably like to be on top.

In the gay and lesbian community, we know better. When we grew up watching the man pursue the woman in a romantic movie, we might have identified with him or we might have dressed up in lace and fishnet stockings. As we sometimes say, “butch on the streets, femme in the sheets.”

Identity is a complex issue. Our goals might be at odds with our personality. Mauresmo clearly wants to win a slam but she might not have enough aggressiveness to beat the top one or two players in the game. So be it. She probably has a hard enough time with her own expectations without us adding additional expectations to the mix.

Kim Clijsters is another of the players in the Open who is injury free and also a member of “top player who doesn’t have a slam victory yet” club. This might be her year.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 172 user reviews.

Today we’re going to look at the end of the Andy Roddick – Lleyton Hewitt semifinal at the Cincinnati Masters event and see if Hewitt manages to get under Roddick’s skin and beat him in yet another semifinal. Then we are going to look at the Amelie Mauresmo – Justine Henin-Hardenne semifinal in Toronto. What happens when one of the mentally toughest players on the tour, Henin-Hardenne, plays the more mentally fragile Mauresmo? To say that Mauresmo is mentally fragile is a relative statement. Relative to Justine Henin-Hardenne, 98% of the population is mentally fragile. I get nervous every time I get the lead in a match.

Roddick is a very gracious competitor. His former coach, Brad Gilbert, didn’t like Roddick’s habit of applauding his opponent’s good shots. Hewitt can be a jerk. If you get annoyed when he celebrates your errors, and who wouldn’t, he’ll get combative and celebrate more. Hewitt uses his emotions to push himself to fight harder. Roddick’s emotions derail him. If he gets a bad call or tangles with an obnoxious opponent, he gets frustrated.

We join Roddick and Hewitt with Roddick serving at 5-6, 15-15 to stay in the second set. Roddick has already won the first set 6-4.

One of Hewitt’s mental strengths is his relentlessness. He goes after everything that moves. Right away he gets an impossible pickup. Roddick chips and charges a low ball to the corner. Hewitt manages to get over to the ball then flick it up off the ground and past Roddick for a winner.

Roddick’s record against Hewitt is 1-6. Against Federer it’s 1-10. If he can’t add something to his game, those results will not change. When you can serve over 150 mph, one obvious tactic to try is attacking the net on your serve. Which is what Roddick does for the next three points to win the game and get to the tiebreaker.

Roddick continues his Pete Sampras imitation and comes in every point on his serve in the tiebreaker, including a serve and volley on second serve. He wins the tiebreaker and match, 6-4, 7-6(4).

Roddick’s new aggressiveness doesn’t work against Federer in the final, Federer will win his fourth Masters Series tournament of the year and take his first Cincinnati championship. But it’s a good development for Roddick. He has more game than Hewitt and should beat him most of the time. If he continues to develop the attacking part of his game, he’ll be a better match for Federer.

Relative to Justine Henin-Hardenne, 98% of the population is mentally fragile. I get nervous every time I get the lead in a match

Mauresmo is the defending champion and loves to play in Canada. Well, Montreal anyway. She’s won this tournament twice when it was in Montreal. Henin-Hardenne has won four of the six tournaments she’s entered this year including her fourth grand slam title at the French Open. This should be a good match.

Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne have the best one-handed backhands in the game are also two of the best shotmakers. They throw high loopers, flat angled shots and slices at each other and come to the net four time between them in the first game alone. Mauresmo is the first one to crack. She hits a load of errors and loses her second service game at love to go down 1-2.

Henin-Hardenne is an aggressive player. She takes chances to go for winners and comes to the net at any opportunity. She is clearly here to win this match as soon as she can. Mauresmo is not as aggressive, relatively speaking. She stays back and hits more shots to the center of the court. It doesn’t help that she’s getting less than 50% of her first serves in.

Up 4-3, Henin-Hardenne lets a ball get away from her and gives Mauresmo a break point. Mauresmo then does something unusual. She moves way over to the center tee to challenge Henin-Hardenne’s favorite serve down the middle. Henin-Hardenne hits the serve right at Mauresmo. The ploy works, Henin-Hardenne hits another error to give the break back.

Serving at 5-5, Mauresemo is faced with a break point when she finally decides it would be a good time to come to the net only to be passed by a gorgeous backhand down the line. Henin-Hardenne serves out and wins the first set 7-5.

Mauresmo gives up a break in the first game of the second set as Henin-Hardenne picks up where she left off – going for winners. In the second game, Mauresmo should have let an overhead bounce. Instead, she hits it into the middle of the court and Henin-Hardenne returns it so hard that Mauresmo can only send it wide.

Then the momentum changes. Mauresmo increases her first serve percentage significantly and begins to take the net away from Henin-Hardenne who starts spraying forehands everywhere but the court. Mauresmo wins five straight games before Henin-Hardenne finally remembers what got her there and starts going for more winners and coming to the net again. You have to appreciate this. The net is not the easiest place for a 5’5” player to camp out and Henin-Hardenne is not that comfortable there but she’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.

Henin-Hardenne wins one more game before losing the second set, 3-6, but then Mauresmo completely falls apart. She loses the third set 1-6 winning her lone game on a break of serve. Mauresmo wins only half the points on her first serve and no points at all on her second serve.

In some sports competitions, the difference in score between second and first place can be very small, a tenth of a point in a gymnastics competition for instance. But the difference between first and second place can be huge because the first place finisher is a champion in their mind. They’ll do whatever it takes to win.

Mauresmo is ranked number three in the world but the distance between her and the number one ranked players is at least as big as the distance between Roddick and Federer.

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 224 user reviews.

Not only is there a seniors’ league in the USTA but there is also a super seniors’ league – for players over 65. On the WTA tour, thirty or over qualifies you for super seniors and today we have a super seniors’ final.

Mary Pierce and Ai Sugiyama are playing for the championship of the Acura Classic. When was the last time we had a WTA final with two players thirty years or older?

We are in Carlsbad just north of San Diego and the beach isn’t far away but it’s hotter than hell and the players can’t wait for the marine layer to roll in and cool things off. ESPN is televising all US Open Series finals every Sunday in August. There are good things and bad in a calendar dictated by the television schedule. You get excellent exposure but you play when they tell you to play. In my league, we fight like cats and dogs for those early morning match times. Middle of the afternoon match time in August? You better hope you have a lot of team members because a good number of them will not show up.

Not much is happening in this match. Pierce is up 5-1 in the second set having already won the first set 6-0. Though she did break Pierce once, Sugiyama hasn’t had a game point on her serve yet.

Pierce hits three winners to get to her first championship point. To give you a picture of her dominance today, consider this: she now has more than ten times the number of winners Sugiyama has. She looks like a prize fighter out there just wailing on her opponent. If she continues this level of play, she has a chance to win the U.S. Open.

Then it gets interesting.

Sugiyama saves the match point and throws her hands up in the air as if she’s just tossed the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. If your down 0-6, 1-5, a little humor helps. Pierce loses her second and third championship points on errors and Sugiyama takes the fourth with a winner. Another Pierce error gives Sugiyama a break point then Pierce double faults to lose the game. Uh oh.

When you’re close to getting something you really, really want, your heart starts pumping faster, your throat gets dry, your mind jumps into the future.

It’s been four years since Pierce won a Tier I tournament and four years since she was in the top ten. Being right on the edge of reaching those two markers after such a long time would make anyone anxious . Pierce is usually the queen of routine. Nothing takes her out of her slow, methodical service preparation. I always wonder what she’s thinking about when she stands at the baseline and looks in her opponent’s direction with empty eyes for a good five to ten seconds before bouncing the ball a few times and finally starting her service motion. Here on defense, however, she starts rushing. Sugiyama runs everything down and finally gets a game point, which she wins, to get to 3-5. Nobody wants to lose a match that doesn’t go at least an hour long. That’s embarrassing.

Another strong serve gives Pierce her fifth championship point. She pushes Sugiyama around until she gets a sitter but her volley clips the top of the net and sails long. Worse than that, on the next point she sets herself up for an easy overhead and totally shanks it. She hits it with her racket handle! Her brother, David, who is also her coach, is doubled over in laughter and, luckily for Pierce’s state of mind, so is she. What else can you do?

When you’re close to getting something you really, really want, your heart starts pumping faster, your throat gets dry, your mind jumps into the future. “Hmm, one hundred and eighty nine thousand dollars, that’s a lotta money.” “Wow, maybe I can win the Open!” “O.k. now, CONCENTRATE!”

But you can’t concentrate. Your mind has gone off on its own and it’s very hard to rein it back in.

Pierce goes back to the ballboy and towels off then stands at the baseline and stares in her opponents’ direction even longer than usual. If she can get herself back into her routine, she can gather herself. It must work because she settles right back into her dominating game on the next point. She moves Sugiyama around like a puppet yet again and gets her seventh championship point. She gathers herself one more time then hits an ace to finally win it, 6-0, 6-3.

Pierce is done for the day. She’s peaking as she moves towards yet another slam and even those hiccups at the end of the match will probably be laughed off. Sugiyama still has a doubles final to play. Luckily for her this event is being played at the La Costa Resort and Spa. She might want to sign up for whatever treatment boxers receive after a good whupping. She’s been a good fighter but she got beaten badly today.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 212 user reviews.