Saturday, April 9, 2011

Has Jelena lost the passion?

This is not a new question for me. I’ve been wondering this for quite some time. But it’s the first time I’ve elected to write about it. Maybe it was watching her play against Caroline Wozniacki today and observing the way she defeated herself far more than she was defeated by her opponent. (Yes Wozniacki is a decent player, but Jankovic made her look way better than she actually is).

Maybe it was her lack of energy, not to mention a forehand, or a net strategy. Maybe it was during the post-match interview when she admitted that she knew that no matter what she threw at Caroline, the ball was going to come back. Maybe it was her frank admission that sometimes you need some luck to win a match. The great ones don’t rely on luck when they are confident that their skills will do. Luck to them is nothing but a sweet bonus, not something they ever count on.

Mainly I got the impression today that Jankovic was just going through the motions. She had a match to play and she was going to fulfill her contractual obligation by showing up for said match. Apparently expecting her to bring along some passion was asking too much. Her manner remained desultory, lacking, absent. Unlike yesterday when her chat with Pavel seemed to energize her for a bit, today she just remained flat. Really, she seemed entirely disinterested. 

I am not without sympathy for how difficult it must be to have to gear up to play tennis day in day out. Despite how much these players are catered to -- and is there a better symbol of that than the red carpet that is unfurled as they walk out of the tunnel leading onto the main court? -- but despite the lengths that the WTA must undoubtedly go to to keep their stars happy, surely it must all get old at some point. The best of us would become jaded if our lives consisted only of the same experiences day in and day out, no matter how enjoyable those experiences may initially be. My point being that I am not lacking in empathy for Jankovic if this is indeed what may be going on for her.

But part of being a highly paid professional is that you have the means as well as access to the best psychologists and other professionals who can help you get your groove back. Like Stella, sometimes all you need is some time off. Visit a Caribbean island, have sex with a beach rasta. Of course you have to make sure that you don’t lose your damn mind and marry him. Next thing you know you’re divorcing a gay man who expects to get half.

I find that it helps to think of your profession as a marriage. It’s a long-term commitment between you and the career you've chosen. Like most commitments, things are usually heated and excited at the start. But with the passage of time, passions inevitably cool. But there are certain tricks that can help re-ignite those feelings. If you loved something once, it's going to be easy to love it again, with a little effort and dedication on your part.

For a start, as in a marriage, it is important not to take your sport for granted. You have to keep nurturing your game. It’s cliched to say this but the truth is that anything that is not improving is probably getting worse. When it comes to a sport, there’s no such thing as status quo. And as in a marriage, there’s always some kind of outside threat that you may need to defend against during those times when things become a bit lackluster. There’s always going to be parasites like LeAnn Rimes who, despite claims of Christianity, would not lose sleep over invading and then killing off your relationship.

The tennis equivalent are those newbies who would get a kick out of thrashing you. Just because you got to the top does not mean that you will naturally stay there. Getting there is only part of the work. Staying there is far more difficult. And staying there involves never taking it for granted that you will always be there. But former #1 Jelena Jankovic surely knows this better than most?

Another way to keep the passion alive is by never making it only about you. It's crucial to avoid feeding into the kind of narcissism that afflicts some people after they’ve achieved -- be it a ring on their wedding finger or some WTA wins. The minute you become deluded enough to believe that you’re entitled to the things you have, is the minute the loss of passion may begin to set in. Passion thrives on mutuality and sharing. It’s important to give back to tennis as much or more than you take from it.

Sometimes also, passion begins to wane when you stop trying new things. I’m not referring here to the kinds of rituals (and superstitions) that players often engage in. For instance, before Wozniacki serves (on clay), she often cleans the baseline with her feet, knocks the clay out of her shoes, bounces the ball three times to the right, three times to the front, and then serves. She should probably never change this ritual. She’s probably no longer even conscious of sometimes doing this. But it is part of her stimulus control, her body's preparation for winning.

Trying something new and exciting means simply tweaking your game, adding always to the arsenal of shots that you have mastered and that you can call upon when needed. If your entire game remains serving big and hitting ground-strokes from the baseline, the loss of passion for the sport is probably inevitable. It’s important to keep adding some some spice and variety, not only because that will make you a more formidable opponent, but also because this will help you to retain your passion for the sport.

Finally, sometimes you just have to fake it 'til you feel it. Is there a woman out there who has not faked an orgasm? It's a myth that women only do this to satisfy mens' egos. In fact, we do this also because sometimes in the middle of faking it, you catch a moment and next thing you know, you’re truly getting off. It’s no different with tennis. Get out there and pump yourself up. Break a racket or two. Yell at your box. Anything you need to do to actually feel something, to get yourself out of your torpor.

Of course if all else fails, you should probably just get a divorce. You’re of no use to yourself or to the sport if you’re just going to show up, go through the motions, and collect a pay check. Tennis is fully deserving of your passion, and if you can’t (or don’t want to) rekindle it, well then just fire yourself and give some other newbie a chance to make her mark.

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