Tennis Mental Edge Blog Home

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Knowing Your Self is the First Step in Tennis Success

Will Caroline Wozniacki make the necessary adjustments in the off-season to win her first grand slam? Self-awareness may be the key that unlocks her grand slam potential...
FOX’s reality television show American Idol is designed to identify vocal talent that has not yet been unearthed and transform them in to a star. The show has unearthed great talents that have gone on to successful music careers. While listening to these great vocalists can be entertaining often the most entertaining television occurs during the first few weeks of the show as the judges tour the nation to find pop star talent. Contestants often “bomb” as they attempt to be the next Idol. In fact, many of them sadly cannot hold a note. I find myself cringing as they ask for one more shot and the judges are pushing them out the door. So, why would they put themselves out there on national television for Simon (previously) to remark “don’t quit your day job”? For some it is about getting attention. For many others, however, they truly believe they can be the next Idol. Yet their singing is atrocious. Clearly they are lacking self-awareness. You can see it as they have interesting reactions to the failed audition. Some cry hysterically and others are absolutely livid, almost violent, as they realize their dream is being crushed. How couldn't they see this coming?
Similar to talented singers and musicians, great tennis players often have tremendous self-awareness. They have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. They know when they are attempting to do too much such as using a weaker skill in critical moments of a game. Serena is not likely to hit a drop shot at match point down. She is going to use her big time forehand and serve.
Great players also are realistic and recognize their capabilities and limitations. This does not mean they give up on their dreams or do not try to get better. Instead, they work with and on their limitations. What have we seen from Nadal and Djokovic the last few years in their attempt to dethrone each other and Federer? Nadal used the off-season prior to the 2010 ATP season to improve his serve. Going into 2011 Djokovic, to overcome Federer and Nadal, needed to be more consistent and aggressive. And, he did it. He controlled almost every match this year with his groundstrokes. Furthermore, during matches great players have game plans and strategies to use their “weapons” or strengths against an opponent’s weakness. That is why you will see many tennis players like Steffi Graff run around their backhand to hit inside-out forehands; they are using their “weapon.”
How can you enhance your self-awareness?
  • Listen to Yourself – be aware of your self-talk during matches and practice. Is it positive and productive or negative and unproductive? Also, how do you coach yourself when learning skills or tactics?
  • Listen to & Accept Feedback – sometimes the feedback that coaches, parents, and teammates give us is not fun to hear. However, to be your best you most learn from those around you. Make a commitment to focus on the message, and not on how it is being said.
  • Know Your Blind Spots – talk to others about the things you do that hurt your performance (a hitch in your swing) or relationships with others (a tendency to interrupt others when talking). This requires having a tough skin, but what you can learn helps you avoid acting unintentionally.
  • Watch Video – watching video of past performances can open your eyes whether it is during a slump or just to become more aware of your patterns of behavior in competition. When I watch video of my clients I will spend time looking at their body language, eyes, and routines especially before and after big points and critical changes in momentum.
  • Set Goals – spend time thinking about what you want versus what others want for you. What are your goals? These goals then take top priority in training.
  • Look for Signs During Matches – when and how do you get down on yourself? What are trouble spots when your performance drops? Knowing this allows you to develop a plan to overcome it.
  • Reflect on the Performance Post-Practice and Post-Match – after every game and practice take a few minutes to evaluate what happened in a journal. Ask yourself, did you achieve your goals? Did you follow the game plan? What went well and not so well? What should you work on in practice based on this performance?
Spend time analyzing your performances and you will develop faster. That is, of course, if you are motivated to do the work on the things that are most difficult for you to do in your game.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Cheating a "Cheater" Doesn't Work

Cheating a cheating player back leads to more cheating and hurts your reputation.

When I talk with players, parents and coaches the topic of cheating will often come up. There is concern with how to deal with cheating. When I ask the audience what they should do many will say to "cheat them back". I understand the frustration and wanting to get back at the person cheating. However, cheating someone that is cheating does not work!

Cheating a "cheater" (I use this term lightly and because this is how players refer to people that cheat) is not an effective strategy. Why? You are now distracted and focused more on getting back at your opponent than playing your game. Furthermore, you are playing the "cheaters" game. They want this drama because they feel it will help them win. And, do you think cheating them will make them stop? No. It will only motivate them to cheat you again because how dare you cheat them. What ensues is a battle to get back at the opponent with worse and worse cheating and behavior.

While the match it's self will become a disaster because neither player is focused on tennis, the long term damage is what coaches, players, and parents say about you. Your reputation will be affected by cheating the "cheater". You will know begin to be known as the "cheater". Do you want that title? I wouldn't.

Even worse that being called a "cheater" is that the word can spread to other players. Once you are known as a "cheater" other players will come out to matches sensitive to your calls and potentially be ready to cheat you first (or at least question any of your close calls). Now what was a one-time issue with a certain opponent has become a reoccurring nightmare of being questioned, and even questioning yourself about your line calls.

Do not fall in to the trap of cheating the "cheater". Not only will it hurt your performance in the match you are playing but long term it can negatively affect your reputation. And it is a lot harder to change a "cheater" reputation than it is to get it in the first place.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How to Play Great When Your Opponent is Cheating on Line Calls

The Orange Bowl is an exciting, very important tournament for junior players. So, as the 16s and 18s battle it out in Plantation, Florida I think about the high stakes matches that are taking place and the importance players, their families, and coaches place on results at the Orange Bowl. When the results matter greatly it makes for an exciting tournament, but also opens the door for cheating.

"If you are not cheating you're not trying." (attributed to former pro baseball player Mark Grace)

When the outcome is important you will have cheating. While cheating probably happens more often at tournaments where there are fewer officials it seems pretty clear based on my conversations with parents and junior players that cheating is rampant. Numerous times I have been asked how to deal with cheating; should parents allow the child to cheat them in return or try to take the higher ground? It is not easy question to answer, but I think I can offer a solution that is based on the player's reason for playing tennis - to play great tennis.

Playing great when your opponent is cheating starts with changing your view on the subject. Players are often sensitive to cheating because, well, they feel they have been cheated in the past. I would imagine nearly every seasoned junior player can talk about a match where they felt they lost because their opponent made suspect line calls. It becomes an issue when players begin to expect cheating and are quick to think that their opponent is cheating when, in fact, we know that juniors (as well as adults) are going to make mistakes calling lines. The older players are crushing balls near the lines, of course there will be mistakes! The other thing to keep in mind is that you are usually at a great distance from where the ball lands. So, if it is hard to call the lines on your side, how can you know for sure the lines on the other side?

Did you know that only 35% of replay challenges on the ATP tour and 36% on the WTA Tour are correct? Here are some statistics on the pros' ability to get the call correct.

Therefore, based on what I have written so far a player should not assume an opponent is cheating. This will help them stay focused on what is most important, playing good tennis. However, there are times that juniors blatantly cheat. How do you know when someone is cheating? Obviously when there is a pattern of it happening throughout the match.

I think what helps players stay focused when their opponent is cheating is to realize that the cheater cheats because she does not trust that she is good enough to beat you fair and square. As simple as that. To me cheating is a sign of weakness. A sign of not trusting in your game. When I see someone cheat I know that they are likely nervous, and definitely not convinced that they are going to win. Remember this in the heat of the battle. Cheating is a sign of weakness and a lack of belief. Use that to fuel your efforts to stay focused and play your game. Allow their bad line calls to reinforce that you are the better player and will come out on top despite the frustration of losing the point.

What benefits does a player gain from cheating? Obviously they get the point that the purposely cheated on. However, players that purposely cheat on line calls are looking to see your reaction. Are they getting in your head? Frustrating you? When the cheater sees their opponent getting frustrated, angry and making bad decisions it reinforces the fact to them that cheating works and well help them win.

You need to take away the reward that the player receives when cheating - winning, frustrating you, pulling you in to their game. This is one of the reasons why I say cheating them back is a bad idea. You are now playing their game! This is what they want, to play on their terms. You will be less focused and play less than your best tennis when focused on cheating. You will hesitate on line calls, and when the ball drops in you will be forced to either cheat or rush to hit the ball. This is not a good position to put yourself in! Your mind is no longer focused on the present. This is a great formula for poor performance.

Check out Why cheating a cheater doesn't work

Again, remember the ultimate goal, to play great tennis and win. When you allow the cheater to distract you then you are falling right into their plan. Don't let it happen!

What should you do when you feel an opponent is cheating... First, keep in mind that:
1. Maybe they are not cheating
2. It may not be personal (maybe they do this to everyone)
3. Cheating the cheater is not appropriate
4. Cheating is a sign of weakness, a lack of belief

Second, focus on solutions, not emotions. How? Take several deep breaths as you turn away from your opponent and focus on your strings. Attempt to get back in to your normal between points routine. If you are still thinking about the last point use the towel to wipe away the point as you count backwards from 10 or take a deep breath and count to 3 as you inhale, and 5 as you exhale. Why counting? It is a good distraction from the previous point. Do your best to eliminate thoughts of the last point before starting the next point.

If you are sure your opponent is cheating (there is a clear pattern of bad calls), then take these steps:
1. Ask your opponent politely if they are sure about the call or where it landed
2. If you are not satisfied with their response you can ask for an official to watch
3. Avoid getting involved in an argument with your opponent, for most players this serves to distract them not help them play better
4. Take deep breaths and focus on playing your game. If it helps let your anger motivate you to punish their weakness (make them run, play their weak side).
5. Play with more margin if necessary.

Again remember what the priority is when you step on the court: to be a good sport and play good tennis.  Work on a plan in practice to deal with cheating and trust me you will be more confident and play your game the next time it happens!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Federer Still Motivated After Many Years

For the doubters Roger Federer just proved again that he is not going anywhere just yet. Federer's dominant effort at the season-ending world championships is proof that Roger is planning to compete and have a good look at another Slam in 2012. So, why do people write him off? Didn't they learn from Agassi, Connors, Navratilova? I would not be surprised if he won a Slam in 2012. I think the more interesting question is what keeps him motivated to play brilliant tennis at the highest levels at age 30?

Federer has been talking about the importance of winning a singles Olympic gold. With Wimbledon hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics tennis tournament he has seen this as a great opportunity to win the Golden Slam. This has been a consistent theme throughout Federer's career; finding the next record to achieve. And, while he admitted not really knowing sometimes when he sets a record, you know that the 2012 Olympics have been circled in red pen for many years.

Maintaining the motivation to train, compete, and travel is not easy. Roger, though, seems to be able to find the carrot that keeps him going. A big part of that motivation has to be the rivalries with Nadal and Djokovic. When the veteran champion is being pushed he can either go away or dig in and battle. And, Roger has dug in. During his dominant years no one could challenge Federer on anywhere near to a consistent basis. Now, Federer is the underdog in the semis and finals of the Slams. This has to be motivating!

The importance of family support for a veteran player is often understated. While a young player needs the encouragement of his or her family, a married with children touring player has more conflictions about being away from home. Roger may have less of these conflictions however. Mirka seems to travel to most of his tournaments. Being a competitive player herself, Mirka understands what it takes to play at a world-class level and is willing to accept the lifestyle needed to win Slams. When Agassi was having his great run in his 30's Steffi was supportive and allowed Andre to train, travel, and compete without guilt. This helped Andre to play with less stress and burden. When your family understands, accepts, and supports the efforts needed to be a world-class player it helps to keep the player motivated. Federer seems to have this kind of support.

To develop the long-lasting motivation that Federer has demonstrated you should:

1. Think about your long term dream goals and find the next great challenge.
2. When you are challenged look at it as an opportunity to grow and enjoy the battle.
3. Find a balance between training as a competitive player and fulfilling other important needs like relationships with family and friends.

For Parents and Coaches: The intrinsic (internal) motivation that Federer demonstrates is highly related to his experiences as an athlete and tennis player as a young boy. Research on talent development has been clear that lasting motivation first comes from developing a love of the game. A player must establish an emotional investment in tennis that is based on their own goals and desires, not on those of the parents or rewards (extrinsic motivation). If you want a player to reach his or her potential at age 17 or 21 then the parents must do everything they can to help the child realize that the sport is their own which includes choosing to play or not to play. They must also facilitate but not force the child's love of the game in the fun and fundamental years (approximately ages 4-11). How? Take your child to play tennis - I mean play and have fun, not turning it into a lesson. The enjoyment they have of spending time with you learning the game as they have fun will fill the tank of full of motivation to, if they decide to pursue it, excel in tennis for a long time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Switching from Analyzing to Reacting

One of the hardest mental game issues that players need to learn to reach their potential is the ability to analyze what is happening to them in a match, and then turn off the "analyzer" and just react when starting the point.

Best selling author Daniel Coyle on his talent code blog shared what professional golfer Annika Sorenstam does to quiet her mind and just swing the club.

I think this column creates several great discussion points for players and coaches. First, you don't want to overthink things when you are performing. Second, you do want to analyze things at times; you have to play smart and adapt to the changing situation in a match. Third, players need a strategy for switching from analyzing to reacting and back to analyzing.

The practice and performance zones are a great way of thinking about this abstract concept. Coaches must teach players how to think in both situations. While performing thinking simple thoughts that are task-focused, motivational, and tactical allow players to play their game. In the practice thinking zone the player is analyzing, strategizing, and planning. This is very important for learning the game.

Coaches must teach players when to be in each thinking mode - in tennis obviously during the point you want the player reacting. But, what about between points? How much analysis do you want? I think the answer is based on how good the player is at switching back to the simple, performance-type thinking.

An issue here is that I don't think many young players are good at switching from analyzing to reacting. This is certainly the case when they are nervous, under pressure, feeling panicked... So, I recommend three things:
1. Have players keep it simple between points and use the changeover for more analysis. Players should think simply what happened on the last point, and what they will do on the current point.
2. Many players are visual so have them visualize what happened and then replace it with visualization of how they will start the next point (usually the first two shots).
3. Teach players how to trigger an external focus (reacting). Where to focus the eyes, maybe bouncing on their toes and committing to their plan, and taking a deep breath and exhaling.

How do you teach players to analyze in the practice zone? Ask them questions when you have them in practice situations. Also, ask what the options are and the consequences for each.

How do you teach players to quiet their mind and just react, and at the same time play smart and follow a game plan? Much repetition! Automate the patterns and styles of play you want. Once the plan is mastered the player can focus on just hitting versus overthinking things.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State Scandal: We Owe it to our Children to Carefully Select and Train Coaches

Growing up as a multi-sport athlete in Western Pennsylvania one thing was always clear - football is king. And Penn State football was at the heart of our love for football. Penn State was something to be proud of, pound your chest about, wear the Nittany Lion logo with swagger. Back in 1987 Penn State beat big, bad Miami as a huge underdog to win the national championship. Penn State won the Big 10 in its second year and went undefeated. Coach Joe Paterno's "Grand Experiment" to win in Division 1 football and be successful academically was, well, successful. Joe Pa was someone who was above the cheating and scandals that are commonplace today. You put your faith in Joe Pa and Penn State that things were being done the right way.

Now we have been rocked by the child abuse scandal and the institution's alleged lack of reporting an incident to the authorities. I don't know how this has affected you, if at all, since this is not a football blog, and certainly not a Nittany Lion football blog, but it has shaken my belief. For you it should serve as a serious reminder that what looks good on the surface may not always be the case.

I am not going to pile on Joe Paterno or others at Penn State. In my heart I believe Coach Paterno is a good man that made a mistake. One that cost him his legacy and his deserved right to retire on his own timetable when he was ready.

I love sport. Sport, and the people who coached me and that I competed and coached with, have shaped who I am today. But, as a parent, a coach, and a sport psychology consultant I realize that youth sport is an environment that may draw those people that would abuse others.

Let's be clear about two things. Mr. Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty. The media does not get to decide if he goes to prison. Furthermore, he was not coaching at the time the 2002 alleged incident occurred. Nonetheless, the scandal at Penn State is a reminder that we owe it to our children to make sure we select coaches that are positive role models. We do this by using background checks. But, this is not enough. We must also educate coaches about appropriate methods for interacting with children. And, finally, we must monitor our coaches to make sure they are "doing no harm".

Policies related to the selection and training of coaches in the US are largely ignored. We have no mandate to educate coaches because we do not treat it like a profession. And, we assume a background check eliminates any chance of abuse occurring. These are big mistakes.

Sport in our country also must do a better job of creating avenues for children to understand what is inappropriate and create reporting systems that are confidential and respectful of the victim. We need to empower children to say "no", get out of the situation, and know what do about it.

While Penn State and Western Pa. has been scarred by the scandal they will recover eventually. I hope the same for the victims in the case, but I cannot imagine the pain that the victims and their families feel. All we can do is pledge to not let it happen in our community. It is time to do everything in power to keep these things from occurring. How? Parents here are a few things to do right away:

1. Ask for your coach to be certified and know their qualifications
2. Get to know the coach on and off the court
3. Monitor the situation, but don't be a helicopter parent
4. Always communicate with your child and listen to them
5. Avoid situations where the coach and the child are spending too much time together alone (both for the child and being fair to the coach)
6. Request your organization to look in to the CDC's educational materials on abuse and violence (or at least make yourself knowledgeable)

Coaches ask for your certifying organization, club, etc. to provide education because it is the right thing to do. It will protect your community from what happened at Penn State.

This is a tragic story. Start taking steps now to make sure it does not happen in your community.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

More Resources Posted!

As the heavy tournament season of the summer has to come to an end it is a good time for players to be reflecting on their performances. This includes their performance in the mental game. Take this mental game quiz to evaluate your mental performances.

Mental Game Quiz

Then, check out the resources on the Resources page. I have added four new resources and will continue to add new materials.

And, as always feel free to contact me for advice or for setting up a formal consultation.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Does "Necessary Roughness" Paint an Inaccurate Picture of Sport Psychology?

USA Network has unveiled a new show "Necessary Roughness" that centers around a sport psychologist working with a football team. I am going to withhold judgement until I watch the show, but I think Dr. Cypher's review reveals some of the inaccurate perceptions that surround sport psychology.

Necessary Roughness Review Dr. Cypher

I will come back with a review on this show soon...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Federer's Wilson Commercial the Public Perception of Sport Psychology?

When you think the words "sport psychology" what do you think? How does it make you feel?
I am joking; not trying to psychoanalyze you over the web.

Sport psychology, performance enhancement, mental toughness, tennis psychology, mental skills, the mental game... whatever you want to call it is getting more attention these days. Sam Stosur credited her psychologist after winning the US Open. This is good news for the field and for me! (It's always about me!)

Being serious now, sport psychology is becoming more mainstream. However, is the public perception of what sport psychology is accurate?

Maybe you have not seen the Wilson commercial with Roger Federer and his "tennis ball couch" or the other ones to follow that star Serena and Venus Williams, but it is a funny parody of sport psychology done by Wilson. 

Federer the Sport Psych Guy Wilson Commercial

For most this would be a "ha-ha" and forget about it thing. However, I won't leave it be. As much as I enjoy this commercial and the others put out by Wilson it makes me wonder what the perception of sport psychology is in our country and abroad.

The first question I have is what do people really think about sport psychology? Do they believe that is lying on a couch and talking about your dreams and childhood? The media with amazing consistency in sitcoms and dramas spin this image of psychology. And, you have the television therapists like Dr. Phil which I believe have helped the public realize the benefits of psychology, but also it comes off as being easier to do than it actually is for patient and therapist.

In truth psychology is practiced in many different ways - not always lying on a couch talking about your relationship with your mother (sometimes, however, this is exactly the issue the people need to deal with). Sport psychology, specifically, is often done on the court, in the locker room, before and after games. And, if the sport psych professional is also a coach they are doing sport psychology on the court during practice, and in college tennis, during matches.

Still, I wonder what the public thinks...

Sport psychology is not about constantly psychoanalyzing every communication or all situations. I remember a friend that I was out to dinner with jokingly asking me to tell him what he was feeling based on his body language. I fired back that he must not be too interested in the conversation because he was leaning back on his chair with his arms crossed! This became a running joke for us, but he understood that a sport psychology consultant can have interactions where he (me in this case) is not constantly trying to overanalyze and break down the other person's behavior.

For me, and many others in the field, sport psychology is about developing trusting relationships and helping people reach their goals. And, like a coach, many times that means just being there for the athlete and not trying to do too much. And, it is most effective when it's done in the athletes' environment and when they need it the most.

Is sport psychology useful to tennis players? Please take a moment and answer the poll question. You know what I believe obviously but I would like to have your opinion.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nadal and Djokovic New Level of Defense because of Training

Why are Nadal and Djokovic the top players in the world? I would suggest their ability to play defense, retrieve, get every ball back, and then transition from defense to offense in one shot is a major factor. So many times I have seen both of these guys hit passing shots and flat-out winners from 10 feet behind the baseline.

The edge they are getting on the field is not luck or necessarily all genetics. Nadal and Djokovic have put in the work to be able to play incredible defense. Check out this article from the Washington Post prior to their Wimbledon final. It highlights why these guys have separated from the field.

Nadal Djokovic New Breed Washington Post

Let me remind you that training and preparation are foundational factors in the development of a highly confident tennis player that is performing at a championship level. So, while this piece focuses on the physical aspects of performance and how it has elevated the level of play, do not overlook the confidence that is gained from having the ability to retrieve and hit with power and accuracy ball after ball after ball. Your shot tolerance can be real high if you are in great shape!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Djokovic Credits Belief in Going for Shots in Victory over Nadal

Novak lifts the US Open trophy wearing a FD NY hat

If we learned anything from US Open, especially the final 3 days, you have to hit out and go for your shots to win. Stosur did it to beat Serena Williams, and Wozniacki was unable to do it and lost to Williams. Djokovic exacted revenge for last year's lost in the US Open Final by beating Rafa Nadal. Despite Rafa's efforts to impose his will on the match in the third set, Novak, as he has done all year, bounced back and played a dominant fourth set to win the US Open.

What's the secret to Djokovic's brilliance? Is it the gluten-free diet? No, I don't think that's the key. I believe it was his willingness to go for his shots under pressure. Two years in a row Djokovic saved match points against Federer by hitting a pure winner. Djokovic explained this in his post-match interview.

Q. Congratulations. Last year at this time it was obviously a different result. Was there something that triggered in your mind that moment that made you believe that a year like this was possible? And what was it? 

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, last year I played finals of US Open and I played another great match against Rafa. I had a tournament that could easily end already in the first round when I was two sets to one down and very close to losing to my countryman Troicki.

When I won that match, I overcame the challenge and I managed to come to the finals and win a great match against Roger. So I guess at this level you need those matches, those tough matches against top guys to win in order to get confidence, get self-belief on the court that you can really win majors and win the big matches.
So I guess it just clicked in my head. I think that throughout last couple of years I didn't change my game in any major way. I think most of the strokes are the same that they were in last two, three years.

It's just that I'm hitting the shots that I maybe wasn't hitting in last two, three years now. I'm going for it, I'm more aggressive, and I have just a different approach to the semifinals and finals of major events, especially when I'm playing two great champions, Rafa and Roger.

In last couple of years that wasn't the case. I was always kind of trying to wait for their mistakes or being out there and playing my best tennis and not really having the positive attitude and kind of believing that I can win.
So this has changed, I guess, and the US Open 2010 was one of the turning points in my career, definitely.

Q. Tennis on this level is played with very thin margins. Andy Murray had you down on clay; Roger had you down. What do you think makes the difference to make those margin fall on your side and not your opponent's side?

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, work, I think self-belief on the court. As you said, we're all working very hard in our off seasons. We're all dedicated, especially the top players to this sport. We all want to improve. You see what Federer and Nadal have been doing the past couple of years. They've been so dominate it's incredible.

It's true, especially in the big events and matches, winner is decided by small margins, couple of points. I guess the winner is the one that believes in victory more than the other. That's all there is.

So, the take home message is be the aggressor, impose your will on the match. Make your opponent play your game, beat you when you are hitting out on the ball and going for it. Going for your shots comes down to self-belief and acceptance of if I miss and lose I will be ok with it. This is what Djokovic had to do to dominant the slams this year, and it is exactly what every player can learn and use to take their game to the next level.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stosur Not Intimidated by Williams; Wins First Slam

Sam Stosur of Australia pulled the "upset" over Serena Williams in the finals of the US Open. How did she do this? How, when her competitiveness and toughness have been questioned in the past, was she able to defeat a dominant Williams on her home court? It is a case of emerging self-belief for sure.

The self-belief that Stosur exhibited was impressive. She was aggressive and hit out on the ball. Stosur played her game in the final and stayed focused despite a furious effort by Williams to get back in the second set. She overcame the odds and made Williams press and make many unforced errors. This effort came despite having a bad start of the year. Stosur credits her team and sport psychologist for helping her learn about herself and get through the rough times. Stosur has overcome the mental barriers and reveals in her post-match interview the kind of thought process that enables a player to become a grand slam champion.

You're a real tour professional and a veteran, yet people still talk about Serena and a certain presence or ferocity, intimidation even in some cases. Just talk about her presence and how she's different from other players.
SAMANTHA STOSUR: Oh, well, she's I think probably the best player of at least my generation of playing. I mean, not only is she big in stature and all that, she's got a huge game and obviously has won so many titles.
That presence definitely comes out on the court. I think for sure the first time you play someone like her it's definitely intimidating. She can clean people off the court.

So I think having played her in the past, and like I said before having victories against her, you slowly start to get used to that and kind of becomes more relevant and becomes a bit of the task at hand on that day playing the match.

Any player like her has got that kind of X factor out there. I obviously knew she was in good form during this event and leading into the event. I played her in the final at Toronto, and, you know, even if she hadn't played a tournament before the Grand Slam, you can never count her out.

So I tried. I obviously knew she was playing well, but at the end of the day I just tried to focus on my game and take what I could to the court and hope that it was enough. (, Sept. 11, 2011)

Sam, it was more than enough. You were able to get Serena off of her game and impose your will on the match. Well done!

We can all learn from Stosur's US Open victory. Matches are not won on paper. Draws rarely, if ever, play out the way you would predict it. As a player if you are comparing your self to your opponent you are wasting your time and creating mental barriers. Trust in your game, play your game, and go for your shots.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fearless Djokovic Defeats Aggressive Federer in Instant Classic

"Fate loves the fearless" - James Russell Lowe

These are the best words I can think of to describe Novak Djokovic's instant classic win over Roger Federer in the US Open semi finals. For the second year in a row Djokovic was down match points to Federer. And, just like 2010 Djokovic went for broke and made it. Novak said this in his post-match interview. He went for a flat out winner on the forehand return and made it. Fate does love the fearless because Djokovic survived a 2 set to 0 deficit and 2 match points. Federer was playing amazingly aggressive tennis, hitting his forehand flat and getting the ball past Novak. Very few players have been able to hit winners like Federer did against Djokovic. Novak took Fed's best punch and delivered his own knock out blow.

I was entirely impressed, as I expected to be, by both players. But this match took it to an all new level of excellence. It was clear Federer was on his game and wanted this Open. The dismantling of Monaco was impressive, but his dominant display of tennis against Tsonga was reminiscent of Fed in his prime. The aggressive play pushed him to a 2 set lead. Unfortunately for Roger, Djokovic mustered his best effort and started to control the points. He started to hit with depth on every shot not allowing Fed to dictate with his forehand as often. And, he was making his first serve. This was an outstanding response from Djokovic; the resiliency he showed despite being down to the greatest player ever only further exhibits his mental toughness. When faced with defeat he picked up his energy and his game. And, because of this conscious effort to turn up his game he will be playing in the Final against Rafael Nadal for the second straight year.

Momentum switched several times in this four hour match. Federer was dominating after getting through a tight first set tiebreak. Up to two sets to love, Federer was immediately broken by Djokovic. Novak turned up the heat and it seemed Roger went in to a lull. Djokovic rolled in the third and fourth set. However, Roger shifted the momentum at a time of the match that at first thought would not seem important. Federer pushed back on Djokovic despite being down two breaks in the fourth set. He held serve and then made Novak serve out a tough game. It was clear to Novak and everyone watching the match that Federer was not done and he was ready to battle in the fifth set. And, battle he did. He battled all the way to 40-15 at 5-3. The crowd was roaring; willing him to victory. A chance at another Grand Slam was on his racket.

Djokovic seemed upset at the crowd for getting behind Federer and was shaking his head at 40-15. At the time I thought he was distracted by the crowd. In response he went for the big shot and made it. The crowd roared for Novak and he raised his arms in celebration and smiled. This seemed to shift the momentum again. Djokovic relaxed a bit. You could also see the determination on his face even prior to the 40-15 point. He locked in and played two big points. Novak returned a great body serve by Federer at 40-30 and Fed went for an inside-out forehand that clipped the net and went out. That close to victory. Instead, for the second straight year Djokovic snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and now for the second straight slam Federer has been ousted after being up 2 sets.

While this will be tough to take for Roger you have to love the approach he took. Federer went for it big time and all but had the match. Impressively, Djokovic stayed committed to the battle, hung in there, and went for it when the opportunity was there. I loved the absolute commitment to the battle, to fight back, to continue to believe despite the outstanding play of the guy across the net. It is a mental victory just to hit out and play at that level for four hours.

Great work fellas and thank you for an instant classic. You both were great examples of mental toughness and going for your shots under big time pressure!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Plan for Handling Rain Delays Essential to Success in Tennis

After eight days of beautiful weather in NYC, rain hit the Open and cancelled two straight days of play. I remember being at the Open in 2002 with long rain delays. Not fun for the fans. And, can't be fun for the players either. There was some controversy over the delay. Several players including Nadal, Murray, and Roddick were frustrated that they sent on to the court when the conditions were slick and more rain was coming. They felt the tournament was putting the fans' interests ahead of their own safety.

It looked like the situation particularly was getting to Rafa Nadal who started very slowly and ended play down 0-3 to Gilles Muller. Nadal was not only frustrated with having to go on court, but actually came out late to the court because he was not given enough warning before being called. Probably the responsibility lies with the player and the tournament staff, but at the same time the player needs to be ready to go when called. Otherwise, they feel rushed and not as confident going in to the match. This very well could have happened to Nadal.

Dealing with rain delays are part of the competitive tennis players world. Sitting around waiting is part and parcel of tennis. How you handle it is crucial to performance on the court. Biting your nails as you wait is not the best way of preparing for the match. And, losing your focus completely while joking around with others, watching television or playing video games will not have you energized enough to restart the match. It is a happy medium you are trying to reach, not too anxious but also energized.

The question is how do you prepare to find the right energy and focus when you do not know the start time because of the rain? There are several key things to factor in as you plan for the rain delay situation.

1. How do I tend to react when I have to wait for my match? Do I get more nervous or to unfocused?

2. How can I "Shrink" my normal preparation routine so that I can be ready to play and confident with 5-10 minutes of preparation?

If you tend to get nervous find things to occupy your mind and keep you relaxed. Playing cards and listening to music are good examples. You just don't want to get involved in something that requires a lot of mental or physical energy. You want to be relaxed and ready to get charged up when the time comes. Make sure your equipment is ready to go including having enough change of clothes, wrist bands, towels, etc. And, surround yourself with people who are going to facilitate your routine not those that are complaining, are needy of you, or don't understand or "accept" your needs.

If you tend to relax too much use activities that keep you relaxed, but don't get your mind totally away from the tennis match. You may want to do more visualization than a player that gets nervous or talk more with your coach the game plan. The key is to have a trigger that gets you back in to match mode.

Players need to create a "shrink" routine that are the essential things you need to do to be ready to play. Importantly in a rain delay situation you need to be able to do this routine in as short as 5-10 minutes. The question is what are those few things that really get you ready? Dynamic warm up? Visualization? Favorite song? Talk with your coach about game plan? Get in your final check points so you are ready to rock when you hit the court.

Learn more about these ideas in the USTA Mental Skills and Drills Handbook

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Serena and Roger Start Fast, Finish Strong

The clouds were rolling in and light rain was beginning to fall. It was 11:45 pm on Labor Day in New York City and Roger Federer and Juan Monaco had yet to take the court for their best of five set match. It was going to be a late night. The rain stopped and Federer and Monaco took the court. And, 19 minutes later it was one set to none Federer. Roger came out of the gate ripping forehands and hitting aces. It was clear he wanted to make quick work of Monaco and get off the court. For most players this could be a distraction and negatively affect their play. Not Roger. Even in windy conditions he hit the ball clean easily putting the ball away against a normally tough Monaco.

Serena has steamrolled through the competition at the 2011 US Open. She is definitely the more prepared player as she has started matches very quickly. Serena jumped all over Azarenka and Ivanovic, two top players. It seems Serena has intimidated her opponents coming out of the locker room with her supreme confidence and outstanding play. While Ivanovic was able to break back and almost take the lead in the first set against Serena, no one has matched Williams' intensity in the first set.

Serena and Roger also do what many players struggle with; when they have a lead they put their opponent away. Finishing off an opponent might actually be more difficult than starting fast. At the start it is 0-0 and you have not earned anything. But, when you are up in a set and serving it out suddenly it can feel like you have something to lose, something you dearly want to hold on to. This causes players to play not to lose, hesitate, slow down their footwork and swing, and have their ball land short in the court allowing their opponent to seize control. Serena and Roger do a great job of staying aggressive and stepping on the accelerator when they have an opponent down. They don't back off. They go and take the win. They sprint through the finish.

I think the wet forecast for NYC gives Serena and Roger an advantage. They both are excellent at being ready to play and not allowing the conditions to influence their focus. I remember watching Agassi and Federer play at the 2004 US Open in the aftermath of a hurricane and thinking how anyone could hit the ball in those wind gusts. Fed won the match in terrible conditions against Agassi who was known as a great wind player. If the conditions become bad as they are today give Federer and Serena an edge. They will be prepared to play and will finish strong.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Does a Mentally Tough Player Suffer from Nerves? According to Del Potro, Nadal "Yes"

Which player in the men's and women's draws at the US Open is most likely to succumb to the pressure? Is Wozniacki ready to pull the trigger in the big moments? Will Mardy Fish conquer his nerves in Week 2 of the Open or fall to them as he did in the Davis Cup? Will Rafa Nadal hit out against the best players in the world? Can Serena keep her focus knowing that another Slam is within her grasp? Does Vera Zvonreva finally and completely overcome the perception that she is not mentally tough enough to win a Slam? With Roger facing the thought how many more chances do I have, can he stayed focused and playing his game when the opportunity is there to win the Open?

All of these mental dynamics are in play as we move in to the second week. Every player has some form of pressure that he or she is facing.

The interesting question is, "Mental toughness - is a player born with it or can it be learned?" According to Fred Stolle, commentator and former Grand Slam champion, you cannot teach being calm under pressure. He discussed this point in the Fish-Anderson match. Stolle's example was that Fish will always get nervous. He elaborated the key is whether or not he can "get around it". What does that mean, "get around it?"

The answer to the question is that some players may have a predisposition to be mentally tough, however history has shown us why mental toughness not only can be learned but also lost at times. 

Take for example, Juan Martin Del Potro who lost in a battle yesterday to Gilles Simon. Del Potro made buckets of unforced errors on his forehand. He seemed to lack the confidence to go for the big forehand in tight rallies. When he did go "big" he seemed rushed, out of rhythm, and hopeful instead of hitting the forehand with conviction. Simon continued to use Del Potro's pace and hit the ball back deep, making the former US Open champion uncomfortable and fatigued. I guess we should have seen this coming since Del Potro said earlier that he was mentally not there yet to win against Top 10. This despite having what seemed to be supreme confidence in previous years and at this tournament. Exhibit A that mental toughness is not a permanent quality.

Of all people, the guy I would say may not get nervous has talked about getting nervous. Rafael Nadal has admitted he has been getting nervous and does not have great confidence right now. This was revealed in his loss to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, and likely has something to do with Novak's championship match wins over Rafa this year. If mental toughness was born in to us then for sure Nadal would have it, right? Exhibit B, mental toughness is not a permanent fixture. It comes and goes. And watch, he will find his supreme mental toughness and confidence.

Exhibit C, Sam Stosur double faulted in the second set tiebreak against Maria Kirilenko and later lost 17-15. The perception of Stosur is that she can get tight and not stay aggressive in tight moments...

Stosur goes down to the wire, again (

Just to increase the pressure Stosur thought she had won the match on two occasions but Kirilenko challenged and overturned out calls. Most players would wilt under such circumstances. Having it won twice and still having to dig deep and go to a third. Instead, Stosur leaned on her great serve in the third set and was the aggressor as she defeated Kirilenko in a tough 6-3 third set. Kirilenko competed hard in the third and Stosur had to stay mentally tough to hold serve and finish her off.

Mental toughness can be learned, but some players may have a predisposition to struggle more with the nerves. A part of the personality that influences the anxiety players feel is trait anxiety - a behavioral disposition to perceive situations and circumstances as threatening. So, what should not create anxiety, serving out a match actually causes anxiety.

How can a tennis player with trait anxiety stay relaxed then in big moments? For sure they care greatly about the result of the match, that is not the issue. The issue is that they want to win "too bad" and are not okay with losing. It is a bigger blow to the ego, or at least the person anticipates that it will be. To overcome a tendency to become nervous under pressure tennis players actually need to worry less about the outcome; be okay with the fact that winning in tennis is a 50-50 proposition. Once the burden of fearing losing is lifted it is amazing how free and how well the player will compete.

If you don't believe me think about a player that is losing by a set and 0-4. They are resigned to their fate and decide just to hit out and play tennis. The other person across the net is feeling the pressure of "Having to Win" because they are way ahead. What happens? The player makes a comeback playing loose, aggressive tennis. Then, they get all the way back and the nerves come back and they get tight. Why? Because they have something to lose again. Mental toughness is not a permanent quality, but it is something, like Roger Federer who learned to manage his nerves, that can be taught to players. You are not looking to make the player impervious to nerves - that is impossible. Instead, you are trying to give them a skill set that they can work through tough situations and more often than not handle them well.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Impressive Focus Moves Kirilenko into Round of 16

Maria Kirilenko stepped into a pro-American and pro-McHale crowd last night. Kirilenko's focus was impressive as she dominated the match despite the partisan crowd.

Kirilenko's Strong Focus

What impressed me was the strong concentration and discipline Kirilenko demonstrated throughout the match. She had a routine that she stuck with between points. And, she continually urged herself to be aggressive and stay on her young opponent. In many ways Kirilenko's attitude reminded of Sharapova. In fact, it was better than Sharapova's during her barrage of unforced errors in the 3rd round against Pennetta.

Kirilenko came to battle no - doubt about it. Check out this look she is giving McHale during the match.

Look of a Champion

The body language exudes confidence. Furthermore, her face shows determination and willingness to dig deep. Kirilenko was making sure that McHale knew that she was going to give her nothing. McHale was going to have to come and take the match from Kirilenko which in the end she was unable to do. This focus again came in the face of playing against the crowd, an American opponent, at night, in Ashe Stadium and trying to get past the 3rd round for the first time at the US Open.

Focused is the best word to describe Maria Kirilenko's 3rd round win over Christina McHale. Every player including many on the Tour could learn from the focus and attitude Kirilenko brought in to the night match.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ferrero's Attitude the Difference in Big Upset of Monfils

Attitude can be the difference between winning and losing at all levels, even at the US Open. French Open Champion Juan Carlos Ferrero reminded me of why I respect him, he is a great competitor. Despite having dipped below 100 in the rankings and not going deep in a Slam in some time, Ferrero played with courage and commitment in a 4 hour, 48 minute marathon win over #7 Gael Monfils. His attitude was impressive.

Ferrero could have beaten Monfils in 4 sets. In the third he had his chances to win the set and then lost it on a terrible drop shot. The commentator said at the time "I don't know how Ferrero comes back from this" Well, Ferrero is a professional and he did what we would expect. He hit the "reset button" and got the lead in the fourth. JCF carried this to a fifth set lead where he finished out the match playing aggressive, confident tennis against a tired and very dangerous Monfils.

What was it about Ferrero's attitude that made the difference? Lots of things. When down he continued to look positive in his body language. He did not mope or drop his energy. Ferrero stayed energized and committed to the battle despite continually missing returns at big moments. He kept the pressure on Monfils and was ready to pounce on his opportunities.

Ferrero also bounced back quickly from losing the third set to go down 2 sets to 1. He let it go and kept believing he could win. And, despite struggles during periods of the match and some amazing play by Monfils, Ferrero remained committed to his game plan and grinded out the match. Without the positive attitude no way does Ferrero stay in this match. Monfils was playing excellent tennis and making amazing shots. He had 81 winners (along with 81 unforced errors) which shows that Monfils was going for it and playing big. I thought Monfils played very well and it was an impressive effort from Ferrero to win the match.

To be a great competitor requires a positive, committed attitude. All players can learn from Ferrero's upset win over Monfils. Keeping a positive attitude in a match he was supposed to lose, and almost did, reminds us that attitude can make all the difference in winning and losing. Ferrero's attitude gives him a fighting chance in every match he plays.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Wild Day 3 at the Open; Keys Impresses Despite Loss

Day 3 at the US Open took us on a wild ride. It started with #6 seed Robin Soderling pulling out of the Open and then lucky loser Rogerio Dutra Da Silva, ranked 114 in the world defeating Louk Sorensen who is ranked #618. This section of the draw has now opened up for Isner, Del Potro, Simon, and Wawrinka to make a deep run.

Imagine what Dutra Da Silva and Sorensen were thinking when they were on the court. My chance to make the second round of a Slam. And, $31,000 plus the ranking points. What an opportunity! How a player interprets this situation, however, determines the performance. It has happened before where a player suddenly has a great opportunity to win and move on but the opportunity becomes a burden. Why? Now there is something to lose.

Sharapova was impressive last night, even after waiting out the Roddick-Russell match that really went on far longer than most expected it would. Sharapova dominated Yakimova from the beginning and despite making many unforced errors she continued to be aggressive and control the match. I like her attitude. She doesn't back off. She goes for it. Sharapova knows she is going to miss because she hits big, but she also knows that she is controlling the match. This is exactly what every player wants when going into battle.

Interestingly, Maria is faced with the same psychological phenomenon that Dutra Da Silva and Sorensen dealt with earlier in the day. A great opportunity has been presented to her. She probably is the favorite to win the Open. Will she look at it as an opportunity and go get it or something to lose, and play not to lose?

Sharapova has to be looking at the events of Day 3 and thinking her chances are getting better and better to win the Open. Venus pulls out with the diagnosis of an illness. I wish her the best in terms of dealing with it and hope she can be back soon. Li, Cibulkova, Radwanska, and Bartoli are sent packing. Clijsters is already out having announced that she was injured and would not play before the tournament. Kvitova lost as well in the first round. There will be some surprise names in the 2nd week for the women and you know that Sharapova is fired up thinking about the opportunity before her. The key here is to look at it as an opportunity and not a burden.

Three American women were impressive yesterday - Christina McHale upset Marian Bartoli, Irina Falconi defeated Dominika Cibulkova, and Madison Keys had every opportunity to move on against Lucie Safarova. Day 3 provided some optimism for American tennis; when the Williams' sister retire we may some young women ready to step in and compete in the second week of the Slams.

I was most interested in watching Keys play Safarova on Day 3 because I heard a lot about her strength and serve. There is no doubt Keys can compete on the WTA tour (can she handle the week-to-week grind is another question to be answered later). She is impressive at such a young age. I felt Keys was in better form than Safarova and really should have put the #27 seed away in the second set. Unfortunately, it seemed the 16 year-old Keys knew too well what she was on the verge of doing and the situation got to her. Safarova steadied her game, started making a lot more balls, and Keys went for low percentage shots under pressure. Clearly she was feeling the pressure.

Like Ryan Harrison, and even more so, I'm willing to give Keys the benefit of the doubt. She is 16. The mental maturity required to play at the highest level is something that takes time to learn. Keys will need more of these professional level matches to develop her mental game. With more experience and good training she will be able to handle the pressure and make good on court decisions for the whole match. At the same time lets give Madison credit. She was trying to work the mental game in the second set, and all credit to her for starting fast. She must have been mentally prepared. Keys was attempting to take her time between points and compose herself. It worked for awhile but you could see her become more tense as she was unable to finish off her service game late in the second set. As the game wore on the pressure rose and Keys began to rush. She then double faulted several times and was broken when she missed wildly. Again, it is not all negative. I would rather see Keys going down swinging than push the ball.

When Safarova broke and took the second set she started playing better. Safrarova has a great deal of experience and really wore down Keys in the third set. I was still impressed with Keys, however. She was very dangerous in the third despite being fatigued and disappointed with the fact that she was still on the court. It just seemed that the anxiety she was feeling finally sapped her of her energy which was enough for Safarova to get through the match. Yesterday's match will be a great lesson for Keys that will help her become a better player in the future.

To top off a wild Day 3 Andy Roddick decided to go after the media in a post-match interview with Chris Fowler. After Roddick's ok performance against Michael Russell you could tell that Andy was frustrated with his performance and relieved to move on. The ESPN2 commentators talked at length about Roddick's unwillingness to adapt, such as being more aggressive and stepping in to the court on the return, to still be a threat at the Slams. It almost seemed that someone was feeding Roddick this information as he finished the match because he looked upset at the media from the start of the on-court interview and post-match with Fowler. He barely looked at Darren Cahill during his on-court interview and was visibly upset when talking to Fowler. Is this a distraction for Roddick? Hardly. I think it helps him. Roddick needs to play with passion and belief which are missing right now. Creating a "me-against-the world" mindset can work for Andy. It certainly added to an interesting Day 3. Can't wait for Day 4 of the Open!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Harrison's Loss Due to Control not Skill

Ryan Harrison lost in a tough first round matchup with #27 seed Marin Cilic. Harrison lost this match in straight sets, however, he served for two of the three sets. Harrison proved, as he has all summer, that he has the game to compete with the big guns on the ATP tour.

Game is not the reason Harrison lost in the first round of the 2011 US Open. Not even close. It was Harrison's inability to manage situations and his emotions effectively at crucial times. I cannot know for sure what Ryan was thinking on the court, but it seemed he got a little tight when serving it out. Then, when Cilic broke him he became frustrated, did not let go of these mistakes, and began expressing his displeasure. This is when the racket throwing and ball kicking barrage began.

These kinds of outbursts were more common in the days of Nastase, McEnroe, and Connors. The tennis community no longer is as supportive of the emotional player that exhibits his anger. Today players are trained from the time they are kids to contain their emotions and avoid these outbursts. I believe that children should not throw rackets, but as a byproduct of this socialization young adults are not very effective at using their anger and frustration to help them perform like McEnroe did so well.

On Monday Harrison has been unable to contain the outbursts. The fans at Louis Armstrong Stadium booed Harrison at the end of the match which has to be like putting salt on the wound. I think the booing was just as unsportsmanlike as Harrison's racket throwing by the way. It is not like Harrison's dogging it. In fact it is the complete opposite, he wants to win so badly that he has a hard time dealing with mistakes and losing sets when he is serving for it. I would imagine many of the tennis players in the crowd have had negative responses at times as well on the court. I agree with Justin Gimelstob, Harrison's young give him a break. And, he does need to learn from this match so it does not happen again.

Managing emotions is absolutely critical to winning at any level of tennis. However, for Harrison, who is seen as the next great American male player, the spotlight is shining brightly and the expectations can be a burden. This makes it all the more difficult. When a player is unable to positively and productively respond to the situation and how he or she is feeling the result is an emotional rollercoaster. Up after a winner and down in the doldrums after a break. And, as a result the player is likely to be inconsistent in their focus, decision-making, reactions, and ultimately performance. Further, when the pressure is on emotional players tend to play defensive and tentative because they do not want to lose the point.

In my opinion, this is how Harrison played against Cilic, up and down, making a lot of unforced errors, leaving opportunities on the table, being too negative, and playing too defensively in key moments (because he so badly did not want to lose). Unfortuantely, he was not able to get over his errors which certainly played a role in decisions like going for a drop shot in the tiebreak, losing the point, and from there it was a downhill slide until Cilic finished it off.

This is not a harsh criticism of Harrison. Most players struggle with their emotions and like all of us we are human and make mistakes. If like Federer Harrison can learn to manage his emotions effectively and hit out on his shots under pressure he can reach his potential. It is much easier to keep your racket firmly in your grip when you are executing under pressure! I am excited to see what Harrison will do as he learns to cope with the pressures of professional tennis.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Consistent Intensity Separates Sharapova, Azarenka, Ferrer from Field

Consistency is an elusive quality that in tennis separates top players from the field. In the first round of the US Open Maria Sharapova struggled to find her consistency against Heather Watson, making 58 unforced errors in 3 sets. It looked like a real possibility that Sharapova would flame out in the first round in what was to be a great opportunity to win a Slam. Maria stuck with it and worked her way out of a set and a break deficit. This is no surprise, Maria is a great competitor.

David Ferrer lost the first set against Igor Andreev of Russia 2-6. Like Sharapova instead of going away Ferrer picked up his intensity and is virtually missing no returns as he is battling back against Andreev in the third set.

Victoria Azarenka brought the intensity level from the start in her first round match against Johanna Larsson; pumping herself up between points and moving her feet. Azarenka's preparation and intensity gave her the big lead early on, winning the first set 6-1.

Almost every player on this planet wants to become more consistent. Watching Sharapova, Azarenka, and Ferrer should offer some ideas on how to improve consistency.

If the goal is consistent performance then a player needs to have consistent habits that lead to these performances. Sharapova is notorious for having a consistent routine. However, what this routine has allowed her to do is be ready, intense, and energized for each point. Sharapova does a great job of staying focused and battling because she is disciplined to her routine. Victoria Azarenka also showed great consistency of intensity today, which is not a surprise. She is constantly imploring herself. Consistent routines create a more consistent level of intensity, energy, and focus. Azarenka does a tremendous job of moving her feet and getting into position. Players that are not ready to play don't move their feet as well.

Being consistent takes discipline. The discipline to prepare for each match in a consistent matter that helps the player reach their optimal physical and mental state. The discipline to have an energized warm-up and to not allow themselves to be distracted. The discipline to keep the energy, effort, and intensity level up in a 2 to 4 hour match by bouncing on the toes and keeping the eyes focused on the court. The discipline to stick with a game plan that works and the discipline to adjust when needed. The discipline to stay positive and focused despite missing shots they would normally make.

The consistency of intensity that Sharapova, Azarenka, and Ferrer bring to the game makes them a threat to win every match they play. They are consistent winners because of their consistent habits and energy, and should be playing in the second week of a Slam once again because of these habits.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Questions Soon to be Answered at the Open

Now that the draws are out and Irene is leaving it is time to get rolling on the 2011 US Open. The night before the first round is full of excitement and anxiety for players. Federer has talked about how the first round in a Slam is the most anxiety-provoking; trying to find your form and get through the match. Once you have one round under your belt you feel more comfortable.

So, while hopefully the players are resting the night before I will bring up a few of the mental questions that might keep any of those top players awake at night.

Am I a Grand Slam Champion?
It is natural to have the majority of the players facing the question of "Am I a Grand Slam Champion"? "Am I good enough?" "Can I finally come through in the big moments?" Probably 95% of the draw has not won a Slam.

However, when you are Caroline Wozniacki or Andy Murray ramp up these questions a hundred times. This is not a rip on either of these great players. They are champions. However, both players are confronted routinely with the question "Why haven't you won a Slam"? Clearly, these are the best two players right now that haven't won a Slam. The expectations are huge for both players. Could 2011 be the year?

I am not a believer in destiny (at least not completely). I believe you make your own destiny. So, if Wozniacki and Murray want to win this Open it starts now with believing that they are a champion and the proof to everyone else will happen. I think you can also throw Zvonareva and Azarenka in this category. They could win this Open if they can bring their best on the big stage.

Advice to all those players trying to break through... if you have put in the hard work then "just breathe and believe, it will be alright" (borrowed from the Michigan band Pop Evil, Stepping Stone). Oh yeah and focus on the execution of the game plan!

Will I be Consistent Enough to Win?
Many players are good enough to make a run but are just inconsistent. Can Venus and Andy Roddick find their form? They both can play some big time tennis or be plagued by unforced errors. Roddick won some matches in Winston-Salem which should help. The key is to believe that they can play their best tennis the next two weeks and keep the focus. Avoid drifting to the thoughts that you haven't been consistently winning.

For Jo-Wilfried Tsonga it is not about the lack of winning big matches; he beat Federer at Wimbledon. Instead, can he consistently during a two week tournament come out focused, making a lot of balls and use his big forehand at the right times? Tsonga needs to stay sharp and keep his game controlled. If he can find the fine line between being aggressive and under control he very well could be playing the second weekend. The same could be said about Tomas Berdych, Committing to a game plan that leads to success is the only way Tsonga, Berdych or any player for that matter, will win the Open. Visualizing the game plan before the match and even during changeovers is a great way to stay focused and play smart.

Was the 2009 US Open a Flash in the Pan or a Signal of What's to Come?
For Melanie Oudin and John Isner there has been a lot of hope the past few years but will they live up to it? The 2009 US Open was spectacular for both. American tennis fans have been waiting for Oudin to make another run which seemed inevitable after her breakout performance at the 2009 US Open. It's been tough for Oudin since that Open but hopefully the reminders of that great run will spark another.

For John Isner he is coming off of winning Winston-Salem near his home town of Greensboro so he should be entering the Open with some momentum.  When you have Isner's serve you gotta believe don't you? He had Rafa down at the French and can beat anyone. He is healthier than last year so look for Isner to make a deeper run this year.

How Will I Deal with the Pressure?
Rafa Nadal has admittedly struggled a bit with nerves at Wimbledon and maybe even this summer. For the player whom I consider to be one of the most mentally tough players ever this was a surprise. Djokovic's amazing 2011 season has put the pressure on Nadal. Add that to his nagging injuries and it is no surprise that he might not be as abundantly confident as in previous years. But, this is Rafa we are talking about. He will find a way to overcome and play great tennis. When has he disappointed really?

Mardy Fish is dealing with the pressure of suddenly rising expectations. Now as the US #1 and a great summer attention has turned to Fish as a player that could sneak in and upend the Top 4 ranked players. If Mardy can manage the expectations and pressure, and enjoy the moment he just may have enough to get it done. Fish will need to impose his game on his opponents and believe in his forehand to get it done.

Petra Kvitova and Li Na are also dealing with rising expectations after winning Wimbledon and the French Open, respectively. Do these women have the nerve to win another Slam? In a wide open field they certainly will have their opportunities. There is a saying that once you have done something it is easier to do a second time. I agree, nothing like winning a Slam for the confidence.

Do I Have Another One in Me?
For great champions Serena Williams and Roger Federer a winning pedigree props up their confidence in all situations. Basically they have won everything. However, age and miles are beginning to wear on these great champions. Is this year that one or both of these champions makes the signature run we have seen later in the careers of other great players? I would not bet against either Serena or Roger. In fact I would make Serena a favorite - she still has that swagger that when she is on her game she is going to win. Fed on the other hand knows that Nadal, Djokovic, Murray have caught and passed him. He will need to bring his best stuff to win the Open.

Is it My Time?
Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova, in my opinion, are primed and ready to win the Open. But, as we know being the favorite has its pitfalls. It is like you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Novak and Maria have to flip-flop that kind of thinking if it occurs (especially in a match they think they should have already won) and focus on executing which they have been doing very well lately. My advice to favorites is that there are no guarantees in life, you gotta earn it, expect adversity and know you can handle it, and enjoy being in the favorite's position - this means you have been playing great tennis. Go for it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Can we start talking about Mardy Fish as a potential US Open champion?

If you look at the history of the US Open the man that wins the title almost always is at the top of the game. Rarely (or never in the Open era you could argue) do we see surprise winners at the Open or even finalists. So, this would lead you to believe that one of four men will win the title - Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, or Federer.

After Mardy Fish's summer would you argue that he should be considered a real threat to win the US Open? I am going to go against history and tell you why Fish could win the Open.

1. Conditioning - Fish is probably in the best shape of his life. He is dedicated to his fitness. Fish is moving better than ever, and while movement is not his strength he is able to stay in points and transition from a defensive to offensive position more effectively. And, as is documented in the Pyramid of Confidence (go to Resources to read more about how to boost a tennis players confidence and to hit out under pressure) a tennis player must build the foundation of commitment to fitness, strength training, nutrition, stretching, rest and so on to have total belief in his game.

2. Confidence - Fish has won tons of matches this summer and also won the US Open Series. Beating Nadal in Cincinnati was huge for his confidence as was a tough final in Montreal against Djokovic. These matches proved that he could go toe-to-toe with the heavy hitters. Mardy according to the media is more positive than he has ever been. From my observations I see a guy who believes in himself. His body language is positive and he has a determined look. Fish is playing with more energy, more bounce than I have ever seen. The commitment to fitness has helped Fish use better decision-making which has lead to wins and self-belief. I think Mardy truly believes now that he can win the Open. We are in the US swing, Mardy is peaking in his game, now is his time. Go get it!

3. Health - Who in the top 10 is healthy and won lots of matches this summer? Nadal and Djokovic are ailing. Fed and Murray (despite his Cincy win) are looking for their form. The guys I would lump Mardy in with, Ferrer, Monfils, Berdych, Tsonga, Del Potro, Verdasco, and Roddick, have not been as consistent as Mardy this summer. 

4. Home Country momentum - American fans are anxiously awaiting a male player to give them hope that they can dethrone the top three. Even casual fans that attend the Open are likely to get behind an American playing well. If Fish looks the part going into Labor Day weekend and you start getting the feel that something special might be happening, look out. The fans will try to will him on. Remember the crowd support Blake, Capriati, Roddick, Venus, Serena, Ginepri, Agassi, Sampras, Davenport and Martin experienced during their US Open runs the last 10 years. Mardy can use this energy as positive momentum and energy in those tough matches. I know, I know his forehand broke down vs. David Ferrer in Davis Cup this summer. Why won't it happen again? Fish won't have the added pressure of playing for country, plus the forehand has been good this summer in many pressure situations.

5. Weapons - Fish's serve and backhand can be weapons, and his volleys are strong. He has enough weapons to overcome other areas of his game if he can impose his will on a match like he did against an ailing Nadal. You have to have "put-away" shots to win the Open and Fish has several.

This argument is pretty solid, right? Maybe you agree, maybe you don't, but it will come down to Fish executing his game in the big moments. If he stays aggressive under pressure and continues to minimizes his errors I believe he is a real threat win the Open.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Learning Mindset of Djokovic and Nadal: Focus on Solutions not Frustrations

In the summer of 2010 David Nalbandian (and I paraphrase) said that the reason Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are always playing in the final weekend and are ranked 1 and 2 without challenge is because of the mental game. Their mental toughness and confidence set them apart.

Fast forward 12 months... The biggest story of 2012 is Novak Djokovic. Novak is playing out of this world tennis and dominating top 10 players. The only tourney he entered that he didn't win was the French Open. And, Novak's effort at Wimbledon was historic. Winning his first Wimbledon and dethroning Nadal from the #1 ranking. What a fortnight!

(Want to read more about the Wimbledon Final and my take on what happened, download the free article on the Resources "PTR Exhibition of Conviction Djokovic Nadal")

But, how did Djokovic crack the stranglehold on the Top 2 rankings in tennis? Nadal and Federer have locked down the Top 2 for most of the last 6 years.

Novak was able to become the #1 player in the world and win Wimbledon because of two very important thought processes.

1. He believed in himself. He always believed he could be #1 in the World.
2. He was willing to work hard to make the necessary changes to pass Nadal and Federer.

Novak describes his mindset on how he finally reached his lifetime goals...

Q. When you started to play really well, Federer and Nadal had the world divided and they owned the world basically. How difficult was it to break this, both personally, psychologically in your own mind, to be able to beat both these guys, and also just in general?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, we all know the careers of Nadal and Federer. We don't need to spend words again. They have been the two most dominant players in the world the last five years. They have won most of the majors we are playing on.
So sometimes it did feel a little bit frustrating when you kind of get to the later stages of a Grand Slam, meaning last four, last eight, and then you have to meet them. They always come up with their best tennis when it matters the most.
But, look, you know, it's a process of learning, a process of developing and improving as a tennis player, as a person, and just finding the way to mentally overcome those pressures and expectations and issues that you have.
I always believed that I have quality to beat those two guys. I always believed I have quality to win majors, Grand Slams, and that was the only way I could be here in this position, you know.
I mean, I have full respect for those two guys, what they have done. Anytime I play them, I mean, it's a great match. But the mental approach has to be positive. You know, I have to win this match. There's no other way.
(Djokovic Wimbledon Press Conference from, July 3, 2011)

If we can teach this mindset to junior players imagine how many would reach their potential? The belief to achieve great things even in the face of serious and realistic barriers, and the work ethic to not only work hard but to work on the things that were difficult. Djokovic was serving more double faults than aces at this time last year, but now his serve is a weapon as evidenced by his Wimbledon title.

Djokovic can't get complacent and he knows this, because the hardest working player that has defined the ability to learn and adapt is ranked #2 - Rafael Nadal. And, with this awesome, open-to-learning mindset Nadal will for sure be a factor at the Open and challenging for the #1 spot.

RAFAEL NADAL: The game is easy. The game is not that difficult. So think about a lot of things will be a mistake, in my opinion. Don't think is how you playing well, how you not playing that well.
Is true we can analyze that my game is not bothering him. We have to find how I can bother him another time. I did in the past.
He's in the best moment of his career. That's true, too. I am in one of the best moments of my career. Still not enough for him. I have to play longer. I have to play more aggressive. I have to have less mistakes. Yes, that's what I have to do.
But start to think if his backhand or he takes the ball earlier, yeah, he's very complete player. He has good backhand, very good forehand, good serve. His movements probably are one of the best in of the world in this moment.
Seriously, I lose because I am playing against the best player of the moment, the best player of the world tomorrow, and I am the second. And when you play against these players and they are playing unbelievable, the normal thing is lose. That's what happened last few times.
My experience says this level is not forever. Even for me when I was last year winning three Grand Slams, my level of last year is not forever. Probably the level of Novak of today is not forever. I gonna be here fighting all the time, waiting my moment. I don't have to wait a lot, because I already won three tournaments this year and one Grand Slam. But waiting my moment to beat him another time.
I understand the sport like this. When one player is better than you, at this moment the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time.
Last five times wasn't my time. I gonna wait and I gonna try to a sixth. And if the sixth doesn't happen, to the seventh. It's going to be like this. That's the spirit of the sport.
(Nadal Wimbledon Press Conference ASAPsports, July 3, 2011)

Again, if you could bottle-up this mentality, the solution-focus, and give it to juniors imagine how it would affect the development of our young juniors in the US.

For coaches and parents... Did you notice how often Nadal said "this moment"? It shows his mindset. Rafa definitely gives credit to Djokovic and believes he was the better player in this moment. However, with hard work and more opportunities Nadal has total belief that he can find a way "to bother" Novak and begin beating him again.

I cannot wait to see what Rafa tries to do to overcome Novak's dominance of 2011 and Novak's response. This will be great tennis!

US Open Coverage

In less than 2 weeks the US Open starts. I will be reviewing the matches and providing insights into the mental dynamics going during the tournament. Watching professionals work the mental game is a great teaching tool for juniors! Please check back in the upcoming days for more on the US Open.

Welcome to the Tennis Mental Edge

Welcome to the Tennis Mental Edge blog. This blog will be covering professional tennis and development of the mental game. My goal is to provide resources and interesting posts that will get you thinking and help your game.