Sunday, October 31, 2010

Overworked vs. Well-Rested

Kim Clijsters of Belgium celebrates match point against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during their WTA Championships final tennis match in Doha October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad (QATAR - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

I suppose I could have titled this Desire vs. Experience, or Ms. Sexily-dressed vs. Mrs. Practical, or perhaps even Youth vs. Maturity. But at the end of the day I think that the real difference between Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki in the finals of the year-end championships in Doha was a combination of all of the above plus Kim’s coming into this championship emotionally well-rested and focused, while Caroline has been traveling the globe playing tennis as if her life (or ranking, ha!) depended on it.

I’ve commented before on the fact that Wozniacki has played some 22 events thus far in 2010. That is a lot of tennis. Indeed, it is to her credit that, despite this brutal schedule, she has remained largely injury-free for most of the year. What injuries she did incur did not seem to slow her down or cause her to play any less. That is certainly part of the blessing of youth in combination with her physical fitness. I’ve always assumed that this punishing work schedule was drawn up with a view to achieving the #1 ranking. And no doubt she and her supporters believe that it has been worth it.

But Wozniacki’s loss today in Doha is the best argument I can make against maintaining such a demanding schedule. That is the kind of schedule that, in my opinion, may lead to burnout (both physical and emotional), rebellion, and even a possible hatred of the sport. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself trapped in a profession that you have ceased to enjoy but lacking the skills to do anything else.

I’m not saying that Wozniacki seemed in any way physically deflated during this match. Not at all. Indeed, when she went down 1-4 in the second set, I thought for sure that it was all over. But no, Caro dug deep, fought like a tigress, and won the second set 7-5. But her efforts not to lose in straights meant that she had little left in her emotional tank by the third set. And when the score went to 5-2, Caro certainly gave her best effort, not just to not lose a single point to get to 3-5, but also to give Clijsters all she could handle as Kim tried to close it out.

But that kind of last minute desperate fighting is actually more emotionally draining than a sustained and evenly-paced effort throughout a match. But in order to make such a consistent effort, you have to first be emotionally well-rested. Being young and physically fit is not enough.

To adapt John MacEnroe’s famous phrase about the men’s fifth set, the third set for women is not about tennis. It’s about guts, focus, will, and sheer mental determination. It’s about who wants it more.

Wozniacki is a fighter, no doubt about that. But overuse is a helluva thing. Overuse means that everyone has seen you play, time after time, and they can predict your shots. Everyone knows that Wozniacki’s backhand is solid and that her forehand can be broken down. Everyone knows that she prefers to serve wide and set up one-two winners. Everyone knows that she relies on the single technique of pull-her-wide-and-the point-is-over. Wozniacki has completely lost any element of surprise by playing so much damn tennis.

Kim Clijsters on the other hand, has played only 13 events thus far in 2010. In addition to the complete break she took from tennis from 2007 to mid-way through 2009, she came into Doha not having played any tennis since the US Open. And to be fair, this could have hurt her. It would have hurt a lesser being.

But being away from tennis tournaments does not mean that Clijsters has been completely away from tennis. It is clear that she is physically fit, that she has been training, that she has been off addressing her weaknesses and improving both her mental and physical game.

She has also been living her life away from the tennis court. Kim is married to a man she seems to adore. She has a baby who has twice charmed Flushing Meadows center stage. In fact, watching Clijsters play, you get the sense that she wants to hurry up and get the match over with so that she can go back to her real life, the one that matters, the one in which tennis is her job, albeit an enjoyable one. But her lack of being consumed by tennis means that she came into Doha better rested both physically and mentally.

I have to admit that I did not look at any of the early rounds of this tournament. I decided early on that in the absence of Serena Williams, I really didn’t care to know whether Azarenka would do her typical early-fight-and-then-flame-out routine, or whether Jankovic would continue running defensively from corner to corner. I could not be bothered. I was willing to wait until the semi-finals because it was crystal clear who was going to be there: Kim Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Samantha Stosur. And from this group of four, I predicted that we were going to see a replay of the US Open finals, with the identical outcome.

The difference between both women today, in my opinion, came from the amount of juice left in the emotional battery. And yes, Kim’s experience with winning at big events probably did not hurt. I went to the kitchen for a drink of water while Caroline was making the requisite thank you speech. I may be wrong, but I thought I heard sadness in her voice, and disappointment. Both completely understandable – she has worked extremely hard in 2010. Winning the year-end championships would have been a sweet reward. But fortune this time favored the more sensible and the emotionally better-rested player.

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