Thursday, January 22, 2009

When body language forcasts failure

Ole! What a match. I was actually fast asleep when my alarm went off this morning. I reached for the remote control under my pillow -- that’s where it sleeps during Grand Slam season. My eyes did not even have time to adjust to the TV screen before I heard the commentator saying that Venus Williams was facing match point. I bolted upright just as Carla Suarez-Navarro served for the winning point. I was stunned. Venus Williams was out of the Australian Open.

The last time I had paid any attention to Carla Suarez-Navarro, she was getting a lesson in how to lose from Svetlana Kuznetsova during a Fed Cup match back in September 2008. I remembered Ms. Suarez-Navarro as this odd-looking girl, all braces and a tomboyish unselfconsciousness.

But a different Carla showed up in Australia. Gone were the braces. Gone was the puppy fat from around her stomach and thighs. A leaner, meaner, and dare I say prettier budding young woman showed up down under.

I rushed home after work to watch the entire match, knowing that ESPN could not resist a repeat performance. This was a huge upset.

In the opening set, Ms. Suarez-Navarro seemed tentative, probing, almost as if she was not sure how to create chances. But the minute she broke Venus in the second set, everything changed. When she broke her a second time, Venus started to chew on the inside of her mouth -- never a good sign.

I was reading the other day an account of how successful gamblers read each other’s body language. They look for a tell, a giveaway sign that your opponent may not be as flushed with aces as he would like you to believe. Venus’ tell that she is losing confidence is when she starts chewing the inside of her mouth. And then she starts screaming in an increasingly desperate way. Sometimes, she can scream her way into a hard-fought victory. But if you win the second set against her, there is always a risk that she will deflate. This is what I have repeatedly observed. If I were Venus, I would hire a sports psychologist to help me learn how not to broadcast such obvious signs that I have become vulnerable. And how not to deflate emotionally.

I don’t know if Carla read the messages of Venus’ body language. What I do know is that she immediately turned up the pluck. She started throwing down some stinging backhands that left me in awe. Her serves were not that big but she managed often to jam Venus with some decisive blows to the body. And the next thing I knew, they were in a third set struggle.

Venus fought hard at the start of the third set. In fact she fought and pummeled her way to a 5-2 score. All she had to do was win one more game and the victory was hers. But at 5-2, Venus started to collapse against the unrelenting pluck of her 20-year-old opponent. By this point Ms. Suarez had morphed into a fearless pixie. She ran Venus around the court, making the 28-year-old look like an old lady. It didn’t help that Venus was running back and forth with this pile of fake hair hanging on for dear life to the back of her head, and which by this point must have weighed a ton because of the added sweat.

In the stands, Oracene in her best Johnny Depp style glasses, started rolling her eyes and making sotto voce comments to her companions. Even she had given up on her daughter. And that too is something that I would change if I were a sports psychologist hired by a top player. I would tell the parents that if they can’t be positive, then stay home. Because even all the way from the court, there is always a small chance that Venus may have been able to read her mother’s body language, may have sensed that her mother had given up on her. Not to mention the possibility of her seeing it all on tape later. Ouch.

The team of men supporting Ms. Suarez-Navarro never for a second became negative, not when she lost the first set, not when she faced match point. They clearly believed in her. And if for a moment they may have doubted, may have clenched their stomachs in a moment of panic, they were careful not to show this to the camera. Or to wear sunglasses so that we were none the wiser.

Video courtesy Star Sports [start of 3rd set]
Video courtesy Star Sports [third set excitement!]
Video courtesy Star Sports [end of the match!!]

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