Tennis Mental Edge Blog Home

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Djokovic Outlasts Murray; Nadal Stumps Federer Again

How about the men's semi finals of the Aussie Open? Outstanding! Two high level tennis matches. The difference between the winners and losers were very small. In fact it just goes to show that the details do really matter. Small things made the difference in Djokovic and Nadal winning in the semis.

The big question in the match up between Djokovic and Murray was if Murray was ready to step up and take out Djokovic. Could he stay positive in the natural ups and downs of playing the world #1? Could he hit big enough and control the court and win this match? Well, he sort of answered these questions. He did step up and he did play aggressive. Murray took a 2 sets to 1 lead by playing first strike tennis. He lost momentum after that and then worked his way back in to the fifth set (after going down 2-5) by upping his aggression.

Did Murray answer the question many media ask, "Is he mentally tough enough to win a Slam?" Probably to some extent but not completely. There were ups and downs in Murray's energy in this match - the slow start and the fourth set. However, I remind you that mental toughness does not equal the absence of adversity - being flawless. It is defined by a player's reactions when in adverse situations. While Murray was not perfect, he was much improved compared to previous slam final matches. He was for the most part under control and even positive late in the fifth set. I saw a fist pump, a positive yell... If he plays like this, and keeps this mental attitude, he will win a Slam.

The question I have about Rafa-Roger is this, is Rafa in Roger's head? Roger had a great start and despite hanging on to win the first set it seemed the inevitable Rafa comeback was going to happen. Fed believes he can beat anyone, but it seems Rafa makes him doubt himself. I guess every Superman has his kryptonite.

What struck me about each of these matches is the ability of these players to bounce back. Djokovic lost a 2-5 lead in the fifth and rebounded to win the match. Rafa loses the first set to Federer, and bounces right back. Bouncing back is a true sign of mental toughness. Mental toughness is not a permanent quality like eye color; it is a dynamic, changing mindset and feeling based on the person and his reaction to his situation.

Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer are all mentally tough tennis players. Let us not doubt their mental toughness. What we see from them when they play each other is that the pressure of their opponent causes them to struggle more mentally. This is natural. When they play the rest of the field they are able to dominant mentally; they always feel they have the edge.

The Aussie Open Final between Djokovic and Nadal should be awesome. Novak is trying to win a third straight slam and Rafa is trying to reverse last year's disturbing pattern of Djokovic beating him in Finals. Simply, Djokovic has the edge on Rafa because he is able to push Rafa back off the court and control the points. Rafa will have to have a great night on his first serve and hit with depth. No matter what happens in this match we know for sure both players will remain resilient and bounce back from adversity.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nadal Nervous in First Set Against Berdych; Reveals his Mental Toughness

Rafa Nadal is a very honest man. Sometimes he says things in the media about how he feels that I personally would suggest that he keep private. But, hey, how can you knock a person for telling the truth?

Nadal admitted that he was feeling nervous against Berdych in their Quarterfinal match at the 2012 Australian Open. It is not the first time he admitted to being nervous. And, I believe it confirms that he is as mentally tough as they come because it is not the absence of nerves that defines mental toughness. It is the ability to cope effectively and perform great when you are feeling nervous.

The following quotes come from

"The first set especially I felt that I started the match too nervous, no?" Nadal said. "I wasn't able to hit the ball long.  My movements weren't fast enough. I was nervous because he was playing well.  I thought that I didn't put enough balls in when I was returning, so I only had break points in second game."

"It's difficult against a player like him, because you don't have chances on return.  He hit the ball very, very hard and very flat.  Very difficult to find the rhythm." 

"I felt it was really important match for me, because quarters to semis is a big chance.  You start with very good feeling the season.  You know, quarterfinals is not a bad result, but at the same time is not a good one, no?" Nadal explained.

"That's why maybe I start the season a little bit nervous, and that's human. But my attitude was positive, which was the right way to overcome the situation. I think I finished the match playing at one of my best -- fourth set was one of my best levels on this kind of surface, returning inside the court, making a lot of winners from with the first ball."

Again, Rafa is able to accept that he gets nervous and adjusts during the match. I have the greatest respect for Nadal. He works hard, he is honest and fair, and treats the game and his opponents with respect. Rafa gets the mental game and does it better than anyone in my opinion.

Nadal identified in the middle of an intense, pressure-packed match that his ball was falling short and he was feeling pressured by Berdych's big play. By staying positive and becoming more aggressive Nadal won the next three sets and turned a disappointment into another triumph.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Azarenka gets Aggressive to beat Radwanska and Move to the Semis

Victoria Azarenka just provided a great lesson for all tennis players in her three-set victory over Agnieszka Raswanska. Azarenka lost the first set in a tiebreak 7-0. She responded by doing two mental strategies:
1. Having short-term memory, letting go of the loss and focusing on the second set, and,
2. Persuading herself to be aggressive.

I loved the way Azarenka responded to Radwanska's tie-breaker shutout. She turned up the intensity, hit with more aggression, and came to the net. On match point Azarenka crushed two overheads to finish off Radwanska. Victoria played with fearlessness and conviction. This is exactly the response you want from your player; to commit to the battle and go for the shots instead of backing down or focusing on their negative emotions.

Fearlessness and conviction to play aggressive tennis is what is needed to win a Grand Slam. If Azarenka can repeat this attitude against Clijsters or Wozniacki and then likely Kvitova she will win the Australian Open.

Clijsters Wins Mental Battle over Li

The rematch of last year's Aussie Open final between Kim Clijsters and Li Na went to Clijsters again, but it looked for certain that her time down under was up. Clijsters won because she weathered her bad patches of tennis better mentally and bounced back. Clijsters won slightly on the mental game over Li and it was enough to pull her through.

Clijsters was struggling in the first set with the ball striking of Li. She was being outplayed from the baseline totally and when she turned her ankle her body language made you think she was finished. Imagine the pressure she was feeling. Not only is she trying to win another slam, but it is her last Australian Open. Further, she is faced with doing it with a turned ankle, and even if she does win who knows how her ankle will heal for the next match?

Putting the pressures aside as best as she could Clijsters clawed her way back in to the second set and sent it to a tiebreak. Yet, it seemed like her fate would finally catch up to her. Li was ahead 5-1 in the tiebreak. Then, something unusual happened, at least in my viewpoint. Li made an unforced error on the 5-1 point and looked upset. She yelled out, probably at her husband and coach. Li's negativity belied what seemed to be a big edge. It made me think she was feeling the pressure and hoping that the match was over! When she needed to stay composed the most, Li's body language betrayed her. I'm not sure if Clijsters recognized it at the time, but when you are ahead you don't want to let your opponent know you are feeling the pressure.

Li continued to throw in unforced errors off the forehand and lost the tiebreak after having four match points! On those match points Li played tentative and did not hit the ball with conviction. Again it looked for all the world she was hoping that Clijsters would miss. She did not. Clijsters just put the ball in play and allowed Li to self-destruct. Sometimes just putting the ball in play is the best solution, but it is not when you are trying to finish a surging opponent off!

The third set was played with more nerves and more tentative ball striking. Clijsters handled the third set situation better despite the ankle issue and jumped all over Li early on. Li never seemed to recover from losing the four match points. Her shoulders were down and she played tentative; easily missing shots that she put away in the first set.

The Clijsters-Li rematch was again another reminder that the mental game becomes all-important when two evenly match competitors compete on a big stage. Clijsters won because she bounced back from her struggles. Li will look forward to defending her French Open championship by putting this tough loss behind her.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tension at the Australian Open between Players and Officials

Can you feel the tension at the Australian Open? It is not necessarily the five set matches, the heat, or the fuming Marcos Baghdatis destroying four straight rackets. The players and the officials have butted heads numerous times.

The most notable confrontation occurred in the second round match between David Nalbandian and John Isner. In the fifth set at 8-all and break point down Isner served what was first called out (correctly) but was overruled as an ace by chair umpire Kader Nouni. Nalbandian did not hear his call at first, then asked, and was told by Nouni that it was an ace. 

At that point Nalbandian checked the mark and a few seconds later asked for a replay. Nouni denied Nalbandian a replay because he said he took too long to request it. This has been an issue since replays were introduced. Players will stare at the mark, ask their friends in their box if it was in or out, and then request a replay.

In this case, however, it seemed Nalbandian was well within his time since the overrule was not at first heard by Nalbandian, and he should have had the opportunity to challenge the call. What ensued was an argument between Nalbandian and Nouni and even a discussion with the tournament supervisor to no avail. Isner won the point and held serve. Isner then immediately broke serve and won the match. To Nalbandian's credit he said that the overrule did not cost him the match, but then also doubted Nouni's ability to umpire "these kinds of matches" and called the overrule "stupid". 

There is certainly tension within the ATP Tour right now as players openly talk about striking. Players certainly do not feel they have control over the decisions being made about scheduling, for instance. So, the increased tension at the first slam should be no surprise. There has always been tension between players and officials. However, with recent incidents such as Serena Williams outbursts at the US Open it seems officials are less willing to talk the grief from players. Milos Raonic questioned a call during his second round win and immediately was reprimanded sternly by the chair umpire. It was reminiscent of major league baseball where the umpire will quickly and outwardly get defensive and react to the player. I think some umpires in baseball have gone too far with defensiveness when questioned, just as the players often go too far in the way they "show up" the umpire.

Looking forward to the rest of the Australian Open it would not be surprising if more issues between players and officials arose. The tension is there, you can feel it. Players believe that the officials are not doing their job and relying on the replay system. Players believe that the chair umpires do not want to be wrong and be overruled. And, while the officials really do not discuss these things publicly I am sure they would say that players are getting way too argumentative about calls, especially when the players are often wrong!

Cooler heads need to prevail here. The players need to respect the chair umpire and lines people, and also respect the spirit of the replay rule by quickly asking for the replay. Chair umpires should also be careful of not taking these outbursts from players personally (which may be hard to do when you have former players such as Jeff Tarango blasting them in the media). They need to avoid the defensive and emotional reactions that are commonplace in baseball now. Otherwise, the frustrations will continue to mount between players and officials leading to even more of these incidences.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day 2, Murray Does Not Panic, Stosur Upset by Cirstea

In my Day 1 Australian Open blog I told you to look out for upsets. While some seeds lost on Day 1, two top 5 seeds were in real trouble in Day 2.

On an extremely hot and blustery day in Melbourne both Andy Murray and Samantha Stosur found themselves down a set and facing an opponent that was blasting winners. Murray was able to outlast Ryan Harrison winning by two breaks in the fourth set. However, Sam Stosur was not so fortunate. The last grand slam winner went down in straight sets fueling the notion that she wilted under the pressure of the intense Australian desire for an Australian to win the their home grand slam.

Why was Murray able to pull out his match and Stosur not? Well, Murray was playing much closer to form than Stosur. In fact, Stosur has not achieved much since the US Open victory. Therefore, it seemed Murray had a lot more confidence and trust in his game and was able to hang in there on day filled with tough conditions.

Match toughness and recent performances are not the only reasons why Murray won and Stosur did not. Sorana Cirstea of Romania deserves credit. Her level did not drop after winning the first set. She continued to be aggressive and control the court. Ryan Harrison similarly controlled the court in the first set but seemed to hit the wall in the second. Murray broke him early and his level dropped significantly. So, while we want to put all of the credit and blame on the top seeds, truly Cirstea won the match by playing aggressive, confident, intense tennis. It was nice to see because many of the matches did not embody this kind of tennis. Instead it looked like players were exhausted and worn out early in the matches.

Another reason why Andy Murray defeated Ryan Harrison is that he did not hit the panic button. Too often players panic when they meet a hot player; they give up on the game plan and look lost or try ineffective plays. It was interesting commentary during the changeover between the first and second set. The question the commentator had was, and I'm paraphrasing, "Does Murray change his game or continue to play the way he is and hope his opponent's level drops?"

Maybe Murray became more aggressive, but for the most part it seemed he stuck to his game plan and it paid off. Will that work against Djokovic, Nadal or Federer? Likely he will have to be more aggressive to beat these guys but what we know about Andy Murray is that he can play in different ways and yet has the fortitude to stick with his game plan against a hot opponent.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Rust Showing for Men's Seeds on First Day of Aussie Open

The Australian Open kicked off Monday and true to its tradition surprises are frequent. Del Potro struggled in the first set before waking up and battling to a four set win over Mannarino. This match was up in the air even in the fourth set. Tomas Berdych lost the second set before pulling out a four set win over Albert Ramos. Fernando Verdasco was not so lucky. He started fast up 2 sets to love but succumbed to Bernard Tomic's variety of pace and shots in five sets.

The Aussie Open is the first slam and starts on the third week of the season. The timing of it makes it interesting. The training players have done in the offseason, as short as it is, is clearly revealed in the heat of the Australian summer. While no one has retired at the writing of this sentence you can bet the retirements are sure to come, maybe even in Day 1 (after writing this several players did retire).

Agassi used the off season to train hard and prepare for the Aussie Open. This enabled him to outlast and outperform his opponents to the count of four Australian Open championships. Rafa Nadal recently has dominated the Open, partially due to his dedication to training and being ready for the start of the season.

The court and the heat play a role in the surprises. The court is a slower hard court which levels the playing fields - not allowing the top players to dominate as much with a big serve or forehand.

Another issue, however, is that players don't have as much match play and so don't come into the Open feeling match tough. Basically, players have little recent experience being put in pressure situations and working their way out of them. Because of this you will see wild swings in momentum, and just plain performance catastrophes. 

Give credit to Mardy Fish. He had a tough match against Gilles Muller. Fish's workmanlike attitude and trust in his conditioning and game allowed him to work through very few rough patches of tennis and finish off Muller in straight sets.

It is important in the heat of Melbourne to get through matches as fast as possible. Otherwise, the heat can take your legs and eventually get to you late in week 1 or in week 2. Del Potro, Tomic, and Berdych will be looking for a quicker win in the second round, but must beware of rushing things. Take care of your business on court today or there is no tomorrow!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Four Steps for Improving Your Coaching in 2012: PTR TennisPro Magazine

Coaches, in the latest TennisPro Magazine I present in the lead article how you can improve your coaching by reflecting on 2011 and making plans to improve in 2012. You can check it out by clicking this link. This article is available with permission of the Professional Tennis Registry.

Looking Back to Move Forward: Four Steps for Improving your Coaching in 2012

Don't forget to check out the resource page for more useful resources.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Australian Open Blog Starting January 16

The 2012 Australian Open qualifying has started and Sunday night here in the United States the first round of the main singles draws will begin. I will be watching and blogging about key match-ups during the two weeks of the Aussie Open. Keep coming back for the latest on the mental game happening in Melbourne!

Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 ATP Tour Preview: The Top 4 Battle to Gain a Mental Edge

Alright. Professional tennis is back. I missed it for the less than two months it was on break. If you are like me it is truly interesting to see the story lines of a season play out. Last year the big story on the ATP Tour obviously was Novak Djokovic's impressive run of wins and just unbelievable season. On the WTA Tour maybe the most interesting story was the three new grand slam champions that emerged in 2011. I think in many ways you will see more of the same in 2012.

Regarding the ATP Tour - the top 4 are the top 4. Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray have set themselves above the competition. And, while Tsonga, Berdych, Ferrer and Fish to name a few had their moments where they challenged the top 4, in the Slams the top 4 were still dominating. For me the most interesting questions on the ATP tour are this:

Who will step out of the top 4 men to gain an edge this year? 

It is like a horse race with Nadal edging in front in 2010, then Djokovic grabbing the lead in 2011. And, a late surge by Federer has him poised to challenge Nadal and Djokovic. Which of these guys will go back to the practice court and find a way to get better at some atmospheric level? Djokovic clearly found the edge on Nadal in 2011 by improving his serve and getting his groundstrokes to such a level that he can dominate anyone from the baseline.

The big question for Nadal, can he overcome a string of losses to Djokovic and regain his air of dominance? Losing the #1 ranking, Wimbledon and the US Open to Djokovic had to sting Rafa. However, what do we know about Rafa? He will find a solution to the Djokovic block and battle back. I would expect Rafa to win at least one slam, if not two. My prediction is that he will end 2012 with the #1 ranking. The key is his health. For sure winning the Davis Cup has prepared him for 2012.

Will Novak follow up his unbelievable 2011 with an impressive 2012? I think he will. His game is solid and isn't going anywhere. He wins at least one slam, if not two. For sure he is my favorite at the Australian Open. He seems to have a mental edge on the other top 3 players and I think his self belief pulls him through tough moments. Djokovic has a massive amount of points to defend which can be a burden especially when you drop some along the way. It will be important for Novak to stay focused on the big picture and not get hung up on some losses that did not happen in 2011. Adding the Olympics to the calendar in July makes 2012 a very demanding schedule. Djokovic will have to accept losing some matches to win the big ones. It seems unrealistic that anyone can dominate as Djokovic but who knows. It is probably foolish to doubt Djokovic based on what he has exhibited in the past 12 months.

What about Fed? Can he win another slam? I think he can. He proved that in any given match he can raise his game to a level that is good enough to beat anyone. Remember his French Open win over Djokovic? Recently in the slams Roger has seem poised to make another run but he was unable to breakthrough. To me the Wimbledon loss to Tsonga after being up to 2 sets to love had to be disheartening. So, it was great to see Fed finish the season strong. With the clock ticking on his career, and the Olympics looming, 2012 shapes up to be a long season for Roger and it will be interesting to see if he can peak and play his best tennis this summer. The pressure will be there for Roger to win the Olympics and another Wimbledon so he will have to learn from some tough losses last year, and he will. An aggressive Federer will be a very dangerous player.

And, what about Andy Murray? Is 2012 the year Murray breaks through and wins his first slam? I think it is very possible, especially if Murray, like Novak did prior to the 2011 season, finds ways to fine tune and amp up his game. Can you imagine an Andy Murray-Roger Federer Wimbledon final or Olympic Gold Medal Match? Wow, what an amazing situation that would be. However, Murray has to find a way to play his best tennis in big matches. Being 0-for in grand slam finals probably has become a huge burden. Especially the way that Murray lost the three finals, being negative and really struggling to compete with Fed or Djokovic. A positive mindset based on the belief that his game is built to win a grand slam is a must for Murray. He will have to push aside the distractions of being the British hope and not having fulfilled lofty expectations. The responsibility is now on his new coach Ivan Lendl to find a way to get Andy to the next level (he knows a thing or two about mental toughness for sure). The time is now for Murray to get his first, but it will take great perseverance and positive belief. You do not beat Federer, Djokovic or Nadal in a slam final without great confidence. With Lendl in his camp I think Murray is back in a slam final and this time wins.

Will anyone outside the Top 4 win a Slam?

I am also very interested to see who can crack the top 4. But, to answer the question I think it is unlikely anyone will break the Top 4 and win a slam. All four are seriously motivated and have something to prove.
If I had to choose my favorite to do so though it would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. However, can Tsonga display consistency throughout the season and for two weeks at a Slam to breakthrough? I think Tsonga is a real threat at the Aussie. This is the guy that can break through and win a slam. However, lapses in focus and injuries have kept Tsonga from finishing off strong starts. The US Open loss to Federer was particularly surprising. Fed outhit him in every way. Nonetheless, Tsonga has the talent and big game to bring it together and win a slam.

Does Ferrer have the firepower to win a slam? In my opinion Ferrer is just about as mentally tough as any guy on the tour. And you know he is going to work as hard as ever. If Rafa's stranglehold slips on the French look out for Ferrer. Unfortunately for Ferrer it seems at every turn there is another player with bigger weapons. Pulling together seven straight victories against the likes of the top 4, but also Berdych, Soderling, Dolgopolov, and Tsonga has made it too large of a task to overcome. Ferrer is capable of knocking off a top player, remember Nadal at the US Open, but following it up and doing it again has been the issue.

For any of the guys trying to crack through and win a slam there is the barrier of belief. Do they believe they can beat at least two of the top 4? Because that is what it is going to take to win a Slam. The top guys are not going anywhere in 2012 so the rest of tour needs to find a way to compete and believe in the big matches. Certainly Soderling, Berdych, Isner, Cilic, and Del Potro have big enough games but do they have the consistency and health to get it done? Del Potro is not the same yet since his surgery, but I love his game. He needs to get that mental edge back where he believes he can beat anyone.

The guys that are interesting to me because they have the potential but have not found a way to hit with the bigger players are France's Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon. It seems that Monfils has the athleticism to be more aggressive but likes to rely on his movement and defense. Simon is steady and drives his opponents nuts with a variety of shots and a mixture of pace. Neither player however has shown the weapons needed to beat the top 4 in a slam. Can Monfils or Simon develop a weapon and become more aggressive? Do they trust themselves enough to win a Slam? It will be a monumental task for either player.

Finally, don't forget about American top players Fish, Isner, Querrey, and Roddick. Fish and Isner made great strides in 2011 and seem poised to challenge the top 4. Querrey will be coming back from injury so let's hope he can find his form. And, Roddick... Does he have another slam in him? I would love to see it. I think he would appreciate it more than anyone. Again, the question becomes can these guys pull the trigger and make the shots, in a semi and then a final for over 4 hours? That is what it is going to take to wrestle a slam from Djokovic, Nadal or Federer.

How will the Olympics affect the ATP Tour?

Entering the Olympics in to the middle of a jammed US summer swing makes 2012 even more interesting. The Olympics start about three weeks after the Wimbledon final. How will players manage their schedules? What tournaments will they peak for, and which ones will they not attend? Will some players not go to American tournaments and stay in Europe - I bet this will happen. And, how will these adjustments affect their readiness to play at the slams specifically the US Open? It's hard to say. I think what you will see is the top players being very choosy about their tournaments in an attempt to pace themselves in the summer. Take Nadal for example. He plays so much tennis by the time the ATP tour hits July that he needs a break to gear up for the US Open. Likely, Nadal does not come to the US until the Olympics are over. This will give him only a few weeks to gear up on hard courts for the US Open. Rest is probably more important than matches for Nadal, but it does through in the question of readiness for the last slam of the year.

The players will have to battle not only the physical fatigue of a long stretch from the beginning of the clay season to the end of the US Open, but also the mental and emotional fatigue. So, we may see surprises in some of these tournaments. It could be a great opportunity for one of the players outside the top 4 to grab a big tournament win or maybe even the Olympics. Marc Rosset and Nicolas Massu have Olympic gold medals so surprises are common in the Olympics. The top 4 are going to have to pick and choose so opportunities will be there to win Masters 1000 tournaments.

2012 sets up to be interesting because of the battle between the top players. Who will come out on top in 2012? Don't be surprised if the verdict is still out until the US Open final. How great would that be? I look forward to an awesome stretch of tennis between May and September.