Tough to beat: Serena comes from behind to win again.

There is something about the sport of tennis that has always drawn me in. I used to love playing tennis to a reasonable level competitively because of both the mental and physical battles that can ensue. Unlike many other sports, coaching during play is not allowed (although rules are often bent if not broken in this regard). It can be a lonely place out on court when things are not going your way. Tennis players need to solve their own problems when the match gets going. It is never a good sign when a player is continually looking to his or her coach sat in the stands. It is almost a plea for help and if I were the opponent that would give me a great deal of confidence that my game plan was working. Look, let’s make one thing clear right now – tennis players are going to lose some matches they were expected to win. Even the very best have bad days, break a racket, get angry when not meeting their own expectations, and let things get away from them. We shouldn’t think of mental toughness as some superhuman characteristic where the hero always wins the day, performs perfectly and behaves impeccably. There are some researchers and theorists who would disagree with me, but mental toughness is about how people respond in times of adversity, when the pressure is on and things are not going as planned. Someone who fits with what I consider to be a mentally tough tennis player is Serena Williams. She is also exceedingly talented but let’s not mix mental toughness and talent together so easily. About a month ago a journalist contacted me from Time Magazine – he was writing a piece on Serena Williams and her attempt at winning all the Grand Slam events in one calendar year and he wanted my perspective. So I have cut and pasted part of my response below.

“The biggest thing in terms of her current run is confidence. When athletes get on a winning streak confidence builds up and up. Winners like Serena expect success and there is extensive research evidence about how important expectations actually are. And the thing that will be in her mind is that in several recent matches she could easily have lost but found a way to come back and win. In many ways overcoming these difficult situations is the route to becoming mentally tough. The critical moments if you like. An athlete like Serena will not gain a lot from easily beating a weak opponent – but coming through when under pressure is priceless. What you also see with Serena when she is behind is an intense focus. Athletes call this “being in the zone” – researchers call it flow. It can be triggered by one huge forehand or saving a break-point. Flow doesn’t usually last that long as it is an optimal state where players hit peak performance. Not only will Serena feel confident, but her opponents will have a real problem psychologically as they know how good she is and that even when behind she can get on a roll. In other words she affects her opponents by her presence on court – her assertiveness and she has built up this reputation for being able to turn matches around pretty quickly. There are very few players on tour who can deal with that. Many are beaten before the match even starts as they don’t have complete confidence in their ability to win.
In terms of Serena, I would say at the moment she seems highly committed and certainly is never intimidated by a difficult situation. If I were judging over the course of her career her one weakness – at times – is that she can momentarily lose emotional control. She gets angry with herself when not living up to her own high expectations. With lesser opponents she often regains control and uses this anger to actually play better – few players can do this – most would suffer catastrophic performance drops. But when she loses control against stronger opponents it has cost her from time to time.”

At the time of writing the present post, Serena Williams has just advanced to the semi-finals at Wimbledon – coming from behind in two matches that she could easily have lost. She did however, find a way to win. She solved her own problems on the court. She made the adjustments necessary. She remained calm and played the pressure points with such an intense focus, but always trusting her own ability to be aggressive at the right moments. She is a calculated risk-taker rather than being reckless. Like other players Serena has moments where she loses control, but it is amazing how she can also seemingly flip a switch into a zone of functioning necessary to turn around a losing situation. She has done this so many times that it is clearly not about luck. This is a player who is highly committed, regains / maintains control of her emotions and focus at the crucial moments, loves the challenge and is not afraid of losing, while always believing that whatever the situation, she can come back and win. In short, Serena Williams is a prime example of a mentally tough tennis player. She may or may not go on to complete the calendar year grand slam. There will come a time soon enough when she leave herself too much to do and loses a match here and there. But she is one of those players, even when on the edge of defeat, you always feel is capable of turning things around.