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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.