Take for example the 2011 US Open women semi-finals. The match between Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams did not help prepare the latter for the finals. Serena beat Caroline so easily it was embarrassing to watch. As a result, she arrived at the finals without the match-readiness that is ideal in a huge showdown.
It’s important to get tested and challenged along the way to the final meet-up. Winning tough matches over the course of the two weeks gives you the confidence to keep going forward. Winning a challenging semi-final match can give you the resilience you need to fight for that trophy two days later.
That’s what Sam Stosur got from her three-set semi-final match against Angelique Kerber at the same US Open event. She arrived at the finals much more physically and emotionally prepared to be there than Serena. Do you get my point?
I believe that in Australia this year, for both the men and the women, the semi-final matches made a difference to the eventual outcome. And the difference was not just one of physical readiness but also of mental confidence. Let’s start with the women.
Victoria Azarenka beat Kim Clijsters in three tough semi-final sets. It wasn’t just that Kim physically tested her. The crowd was loudly partial towards ‘Aussie Kim’ as they still fondly call her. She may have broken up with Lleyton Hewitt but Australia has never ended its love affair with Kim. And they let Azarenka know it, mocking her prolonged shriek as she hit the ball. It’s important in tennis to survive these kinds of challenges. Against a former #1 player, Azarenka surged back from a 1-6 second set loss to close out the third set 6-3. She arrived to the finals confident and prepared.
On the other side of the court also stood a winner. But the difference was that Sharapova did not so much win the match against Kvitova as that Kviotva lost it. I used to get annoyed whenever players said that they beat themselves. I found it disrespectful to their opponents. Well today I eat my words because I finally see what they meant. Kvitova beat herself in the match against Sharapova. And in the last game a half, she just stopped fighting.
The result was that Sharapova came to the finals not as confident as she should have been. In her heart she must have known that the win over Kvitova was closer than the score-line indicated, that she really should have lost. Vica was the more confident of the two, and it showed. She smiled where Maria remained grim-faced. She was loose where Maria remained tense. She pumped her fist with delight as Maria smacked herself on the calf, leaving a red line of pain and a presage of failure.
My point also holds for the men. Sure Rafa played a tough match against my Fed. But beating Federer is no longer something that gives Rafa self-confidence. A victory over Roger is something that will take some work, there will be magical moments, he will be tested, but Rafa can almost always count on the win. I don’t want to make it sound as though Federer in any way underperformed. For once this entry is not about him (ha!) but about the impact of that match on Rafa’s readiness to face his true nemesis.
I believe that Nadal would have been better off playing Andy Murray in the semi-finals. Murray may have shown him a different kind of defensive look that may have been served him better when facing Djokovic for the seventh time in a final.
Of course this is pure speculation on my part. But I’m speculating on the basis of the awesomeness of the match between Murray and Djokovic. Sure Andy had his moments of mental walkabouts. But this was by far the best tennis he has ever played. He pushed Djokovic almost to the limit. Surviving this challenge was the preparation that Novak needed to face Nadal once again. And the test was close. But did anyone ever truly doubt that Djoko would win again?