Sunday, November 9, 2008

There’s no crying in tennis!

I was shocked to see Serena Williams twice burst into tears as she was soundly thrashed by her sister last Thursday. Of the two sisters, Serena has always appeared to be the mentally stronger. And then today Venus did it again – she made an opponent cry.

I really thought Vera Zvonareva had stopped with the crying. Throughout this tournament in Doha, she has looked so bold, so confident, so fit. Indeed, throughout this year, I can honestly describe her as composed. She has looked nothing like the Vera of yore, a fragile young woman who would sob at the slightest error, her face turning beet-red, as huge wet tears stream down her cheeks.

But throughout 2008, that Vera never appeared on court. Instead, she has been replaced by a composed yo
ung woman who announced to all comers that she is a force to be reckoned with. This new Vera has been on a tear, coming from behind to qualify for the year-end championships in Doha, and steam-rolling over everyone on the way to the finals.

So when Vera burst into tears after losing her serve in the third set, I must admit that I felt disappointed in her. You see, Vera did not just tear up briefly and move on. That I may have been able to deal with. No, she threw herself on the ground and her entire body started heaving dramatically. Then she sat down, hid her face under a towel, and continued to sob. With this emotional display, she was signaling to her opponent that she was going to lose the match. And she did.

I am reminded of the movie in which Tom Hanks looks on nonplus
sed as one of the female baseball-playing characters burst into tears. Tom then announces in a confused tone, “There’s no crying in baseball”. I found myself yelling at the TV screen, “Vera, quit it, there’s no crying in tennis!” As if she could hear me. As if it would make a difference.

Listen, I am not without empathy for this young woman. As a player myself, I know how hard it is to feel your command of a game just slip away. And I can even imagine that some might argue that releasing the tension from your b
ody via a few tears might have a beneficial effect. Perhaps. I would think that deep breathing and maintaining a positive mental focus would be better strategies than giving in to tears. The reason for this is because crying in such situations is usually preceded and accompanied by negative thoughts – and no one can afford to take the risk of thinking negatively when a resurgent Venus Williams is on the other side of the net.

I don’t know what it is that Vera did that got her to stop crying in the first place. I’d like to believe that she worked with a sports psychologist. That is certainly what I would have recommended were I a member of her training team. Sports psychologists spe
cialize in helping players get over their mental blocks to winning. They teach sports players how to concentrate and maintain positive focus, how to manage on-court stress, how to improve their moods, how to build their self-confidence in their ability to play at the highest level of the sport, and how to ignore or tune out distractions (such as a screaming partisan crowd).

Some players have gone on record about having used sports psychologists. Todd Martin has been open about using the assistance of a sports psychologist to help him get over his mental block against playing Pete Sampras. And when Todd eventually beat his nemesis, I remember thinking that the profession had been vindicated.

Sports psychology is now commonly integrated into many tennis-training programs. Most of the better NCAA pro
grams have a sports psychologist on staff. There is no stigma attached to seeking out the assistance of this individual. In fact, today most players understand that this is what achieving peak performance actually requires.

I remember once being invited to speak to a group of Junior players who were leaving to participate in an ITF tournament. I did it but I was quite annoyed. I was annoyed that it had not occurred to any of the coaches to invite my participation until the day before the team was about to depart. So there I was, in a crowded stock room turned conference room, giving a group of pre-teens what amounted to little more than a pep talk. I would have loved to have been offered the opportunity to work with them throughout their physical preparation. Tennis is more than a physical sport. It is a psychologically very demanding game. A last-minute pep talk could not possibly be enough. And it wasn’t.

Vera played awesome tennis today. But Venus, clearly the mentally stronger of the two, came back from a set down to prevail. They were both ranked lowest in the line-up going into Doha. It is ironic that they outlasted everyone ranked above them to end up facing each other in the finals. The only difference between them today lay in their levels of mental fitness.