Serena Williams' step-by-step guide to winning mental battles
Indomitable, invincible, incredible, the greatest of all time!
When a player steps on to the court to play a champion who is often described by superlatives like these, the player can at no cost perform even half a notch lower than her best if she is to win the match. And when the champion is someone like Serena Williams, sometimes even your best is just not enough.
Serena is an amazing frontrunner and her records speak volumes of her ability. In Grand Slam finals she is 17-0 when she has managed to win the first set. As per the stats, only 6 out of these 17 times had she have to win in three-set battles.
Many players lose momentum after winning the first set, but not Serena Williams. She does not just carry forward the momentum but also revs her tennis engine to gun past the finish line. In her most recent Grand Slam win, after winning a routine first set against Maria Sharapova 6-3, Serena bulldozed her way past the free-swinging Russian through the second by winning it 6-3.
However it is when she loses the First Set and has her back against the wall, that it is worth watching and learning from how she gets the match going on her terms. Such situations are rare owing to the sheer quality of tennis that Serena produces.
There are very few players who have a good head to head record against her. Her biggest nemesis is Alize Cornet who has managed to beat Serena 3 times on a trot in their last most recent encounters. Garbine Muguruza of Spain is another rising star who is capable of giving Serena a run for her money.
It takes a mountain of courage, unwavering focus, undying grit and infallible consistency just to keep Serena on the back foot. To prevent her from staging a comeback and completing the upset requires immense mental toughness.
When Serena finds herself in a not so favourable situation, it is intriguing how she turns the match around by getting into her opponent’s head. She uses a lethal combination of technique, personality and tactics to break down her opponent bit by bit till she finally gives in and bites the dust.
In her third round match against the 27th seed Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams had to dig herself out of a hole and get into Azarenka’s head to turn the tables. This is how she did it.
STEP 1: Calm the nerves with loads of self-talk
Victoria Azarenka started the match on a great note by breaking Serena early in the First Set and taking a 2-0 lead. Serena broke her back immediately to level the match at 2-2. However, Azarenka seemed like a woman on a mission. She stuck to her game plan and won the First Set 6-3.
Serena Williams committed a number of errors and was hassled about the entire situation. Serena tried to calm her nerves through a lot of self-talk. And the outcome was that she came out firing on all cylinders in the Second Set to hold the opening game comfortably. This is when she actually began to turn the match around.
STEP 2: Wear your heart on your sleeve
Serena Williams never hides her emotions. She can get raucous with her Come On! and can fly off the handle that has landed her in trouble. Remember that infamous episode from her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters in the US Open 2009?
In her match yesterday, Serena Williams wore her heart on her sleeve. She would mock herself for uncharacteristic errors and faulty foot work. She also berated herself and was caught swearing on more occasions than one. She never held back from celebrating with fist pumps when she won a point. By doing so she showed Azarenka how much she wanted the match and above all how passionate she still is about the game. Her fist pumps and “Come On!”s can be very intimidating as they add to her court presence.
STEP 3: Use your strengths to bully your opponent
Serena’s first serves were giving up on her yesterday. Having recently sustained an elbow injury, she has not been able to serve as many aces as she usually does. She also ended up serving a couple of double faults. However, this did not stop her from firing a handful of aces to earn some cheap points.
Serena used her raw power and sharp angles to cut short the rallies and move Azarenka out of her comfort zone. With a set and 4-2 down in the Second Set, Serena bullied her way into the match by hitting winners at will and reeled off the next four games to win the set.
STEP 4: Tit for tat
Sasha Bajin, Serena’s former sparring partner, recently switched sides and is now in Azarenka’s camp. He knows exactly how Serena is to be dealt with. Azarenka had a clear game plan from the beginning of the match. She pounced on the Williams serve, took the ball early and made deep returns to keep Serena on the back foot. She also used the back hand down the line effectively to keep Serena guessing.
It took quite some time for Serena to figure it out. But when she did decipher Azarenka’s strategy she used the same game plan on her. Serena started to threaten Azarenka’s serve with deep returns and also used the back hand down the line to give Azarenka a taste of her own medicine.
STEP 5: Win the verbal volleys
Serena was a point away from winning the second set. At this crucial juncture of the match Azarenka’s shot landed very close to the baseline. Serena netted a response almost simultaneously with an “out” call from the line umpire. Though the umpire agreed to Azarenk’s shot having landed on the baseline he wanted the point to be replayed.
Both players got into a heated exchange and Azarenka decided to kill the argument with a hand gesture that suggested “Never mind!”
Serena managed to win the point and the set but was clearly miffed with Azarenka’s reaction. In the break following the second set, Serena was grimacing and deep in thought. She used her disappointment from the war of words to fuel her desire even more as she quickly overcame a 2-0 deficit in the Third Set to win 6 games on a trot.
STEP 6: The finishing twirl
Azarenka did not play a bad match at all. Serena just managed to take her game to a whole new level which seeded self-doubt in Azarenka’s head. As the match went on Azarenka looked pale and the body language did not seem to ooze confidence any more. She constantly was under the weather as Serena mounted the score board pressure resulting in Azarenka spanking easy forehands out of the court.
On match point, Azarenka approached the net following up on an aggressive fore hand shot. Serena ripped a cross court forehand pass to win the match in style and stamped her final seal of authority with her trademark twirl.
A step-by-step guide is easier written than played.
Serena Williams not only has the mental fortitude to execute it but also has the tennis aptitude to use its elements in combination to make it work for her. And that is one helluva lethal combination that makes her a feisty and competitive World No.1.
And as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words!