Tennis Mental Edge Blog Home

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!