August 9, 2010

The Mental Game

There is something to be said for an athlete's ability not only to act on her feet, but also to think just as quickly.

Whether you're talking tennis, baseball, football, whatever, you've got to make snap decisions when you see a ball throttling at you at over a hundred miles per hour. "Should I hit a drop shot or aim for the wide open court?" "Is the more important play at first base or at home plate?" "Can I avoid the blitz or should I pass to my receiver?"

But sometimes, especially when you're on a court by yourself, you can find yourself thinking a bit too much. "I should have covered the ad court." "How did I lose a two-break advantage?" "Why are none of my forehands going in?" And it's the players who can silence these nagging demons who can really thrive -- at yesterday's final between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Aggie Radwanska at the Mercury Insurance Open, the Russian proved just how much mental toughness she has.

There's no reason Kuznetsova should have been confident in her game -- last year's champion at Roland Garros hadn't made a quarterfinal all year and fell early when trying to defend the titles she'd won in 2009. Starting the year at #3 in the world, she'd fallen out of the top twenty by the time she rolled up to San Diego, and with opponents like Sara Errani, Yanina Wickmayer and Flavia Pennetta in her path, her chances to advance here didn't look good.

But Svets is a solid champion -- she survived a second-set rally by Errani and closed out the match in three and completely dominated Pennetta in the semifinals, blanking the fifth-seeded Italian in the second set to reach her first final since October.

On Sunday she actually met the same woman she'd beaten for that Beijing trophy last fall, Aggie Radwanska, a smart player who displayed some flawless tennis the past two weeks, making the semis in Stanford and going one better down south. The top-ten Pole was the fourth seed at the event, but with a 3-6 record against Sveta, she was probably still the underdog.

It looked like Kuznetsova was heading for an easy victory on Sunday, running off with a two break lead in the first set with strong serves and powerful groundstrokes. But that's when things started to get interesting -- Svets was unable to close it out when serving at 5-2, the first display of nerves we'd see throughout the match. The next came an hour or so later, when she was serving with a set lead and at 5-4, but Aggie broke again, this time at love, and suddenly it was a match. Kuznetsova led again in the tiebreak, 4-0 and then earned a slew of championship points at 6-3, but Radwanska was too solid. She saved a fourth match point and eventually won the set at 9-7 in the breaker.

At that point it would have been easy to fold. I certainly would have -- but I guess that's why I've never won a Grand Slam.

To start Svetlana looked like she might have been running down that path when she let her opponent another break of serve. But somehow she was able to find the motivation to steady herself and won four games in a row to ultimately regain the lead she'd had so long ago. She didn't allow Aggie another look on her service game and, this time when serving for the title, she didn't collapse. After spending more than nine and a half hours on the singles court this week, she'd finally ended her losing streak to claim the San Diego trophy.

It might not have been the biggest win of her career, but it is still certainly an important one. To be able to survive so many scares and to remain strong in spite of them sends a clear message: "I will not give up!"

And if your opponent knows that she can't count on your losing -- that she has to actually win the match -- any advantage you have becomes that much stronger.

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