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!