Serve and Volley

The Mental Side of Tennis

The champs are coming out on the biggest stage of them all, minds like steel traps.

By 8.27.13

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Although Olga Govortsova, who is from Minsk, a city in Belarus, stands six feet and weighs in at 150 pounds, she was crushed by the mighty Li Na, the most famous Chinese athlete in the world, in their first-round match at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, which debuted yesterday (Monday August 26, 2013) at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, Queens, the great northeastern borough of New York City. Miss Na, who is from Wuhan and several inches and many pounds smaller than Miss Govortsova, was asked after the match -- 6-2, 6-2, if you want to know -- which is more difficult, the physical or the mental side of tennis?

She did not hesitate. “I think maybe mental. Yeah, […] the physical is not a problem at all if I’m not injured… But for mental, […] you have the first tournament like first week of the year, so you always continue the whole time. … [S]ometimes you are feeling tired, especially when the U.S. Open, because last Grand Slam, you know.”

The season is practically year-round, though it is true it tapers off for many players in the fall; what she means is that by the time the tour gets to Flushing Meadows, it has been a long season, under different skies and on various surfaces and there have been injuries to arms and shoulders, backs, knees, wrists. But barring serious damage, Miss Na says the real strain in mental. “Yeah,” she says in that remarkable Chinese straightforward way -- where ever did the notion come from that Orientals are inscrutable? -- “for me, I try to win the first match; otherwise if you lose, nothing to say after because you already left the tournament. Yeah.”

Awful rot, that, getting bounced in the first round of a tournament. Pack your bag and go home. It seems so dreadfully unfair. In baseball, you get a second chance, maybe even two -- you play the best of five, the best of seven: you play a series, spread the odds a bit. In tennis, you win, you move to the next round, you lose, you pack your bags. And you are alone (in singles at any rate, and consider that in doubles the hell is worse, recriminations and all that, although the sporting code says never blame your partner, which means you must repress your complaints, causing still more mental anguish).

One hundred twenty-eight enter. Each round, half leave. It is a strain. It is mental. Miss Na. on this one, is absolutely right.

At the U.S. Open, with all the razzle and dazzle that accompanies the most important event in the world of tennis, they are edging dangerously close to imitating the Super Bowl. Lenny Kravitz, in this 2013 edition of the great tournament, which has existed in one form or another since the waning years of the 19th century -- Mark Twain was still writing, Teddy Roosevelt had not yet made it to the governorship of New York, let alone the presidency, when then first U.S. Nationals were held -- Lenny Kravitz, a rock ’n’ roll man, performed at the opening ceremonies Monday night, followed by a sweet kid singing the national anthem. Mayor Bloomberg was on hand, as was of course Billie Jean King, the classy lady who presided over the transition of tennis into the big time. Physically, this meant moving from the Forest Hills club, further to the east in Queens, to the location at Flushing Meadows, which now is named for Miss King. The New York Mets baseball club play in a stadium across the street, and there are plans for a major soccer stadium in adjacent Corona Park, where live many soccer-mad immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

As one of the USTA executives noted, however, tennis long ago gave up its country club form, became a people’s sport. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but even as the cost of fandom seems to rise exponentially -- this is true of all sports, however -- there is no question more people than ever pay attention to the game. The U.S. Open, in two weeks, generates more revenue for New York City than do other sports during their long seasons. Which is why there are ambitious plans -- half a billion dollar plans -- to renovate the entire Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, including putting a retractable roof over the two bigger stadia, Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong. The entire project should be complete by 2016, according to the perhaps optimistic projections of the lead architect, Matt Rosetti, a dapper, elegant man who speaks with professional sang froid of adding five thousand tons of steel to Arthur Ashe Stadium to render the roof feasible. Technology and art, combined, are amazing. Money, too.

Sports combine art and technology and money, and graceful, even beautiful art was certainly on display as Agnieszka Radwanska, playing the first match of the tournament at Ashe, dipped and placed and hit and, in a word, totally out-maneuvered her opponent, Silvia Soler-Espinosa. Her sister Urszula did well too, beating Irina-Camelia Begu easily. American women won a few too, with Serena Williams defeating the great Italian shotmaker Francesca Schiavone in the evening and one of our younger prospects, Sloane Stephens, advancing to the next round, though another promising player, Madison Keys, did not, defeated by Jelena Jankovic.

Miss Radwanska, who seems to have satisfied her critics that her participation in a ESPN photo feature notionally celebrating athletes’ bodies did not undercut her deep Catholic faith, is arguably the most graceful player on the women’s tour, but the display put on by Venus Williams, a past champion here, was breath-taking. She was up against Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, ranked well above her. Miss Flipkens, who had a nice run a Wimbledon earlier this summer, made some spectacular points over two sets, but there was never any doubt Miss Williams was in charge, controlling the game as if she were at one and the same time the choreographer and the prima ballerina.

On the men’s side, the key issue is whether Rafael Nadal can be beaten. He has had an absolutely breath-taking run since returning to the tour for the South American season, winning the French Open for an unprecedented eighth time by defeating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinal and his countryman David Ferrer (who also won yesterday) in the final, and making an amazing transition, seemingly effortless, to the North American hard courts following a loss in an early round on the All-England’s grass.

Nadal beat the young American Ryan Harrison in three sets, and the remarkable thing is that there was not much to complain about in Harrison’s game. He hit hard, he ran down corner shots, he served well (many aces), he went to the net beautifully, he made drop shots and cross courts. None of this made a difference. Rafa hit harder. He served better, even with fewer aces, he was putting it where he wanted to get the kind of return of service he could handle. He smashed. He covered the net. He ran everything down. He was, in a word, unstoppable. The score does not matter.

As Miss Na says, it is mainly mental. Rafa Nadal has the power because he knows, or believes -- what is the difference? -- he is the best today. He does not blame anyone but himself when he makes mistakes. Someone, on this issue, asked Miss Na if she broke one of her racquets recently in frustration.

“Broken a racquet?” she asked. “I mean, if you lose the point, is not business about your racquet. It’s about yourself. I mean, you have the thing about why you lose the point.

“I mean, if you broken the racquet, if you lose again, you still have to do the same thing. You have to control yourself on the court. Yeah.”

You better. This is the biggest of the big time, the U.S. Open, in Queens, N.Y.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.