Matt Zemek

Yes, every tennis match is the same. No, every tennis match is not the same.

Both statements can be true.

Every main-draw professional tennis match involves a ball, a court with specific dimensions and boundaries, a chair umpire, linespeople, and added money going into the winner’s bank account.

Not every main-draw professional tennis match occurs on Court Philippe Chatrier, No. 1 Court at Wimbledon, or Rod Laver Arena against players who have made major finals or at least reached major quarterfinals. 

The human brain knows that not every tennis match is the same. Some matter far more than others. The sports psychologist knows, however, that it is important to tell the athlete in the arena that yes, every match is the same. Human beings often have to lie to themselves to create the frame of mind needed to clear away outside noise and focus only on the ball. Of course playing an elite player at a major is different from the round of 32 in Stuttgart or the semifinals of Sydney. Yet, players eventually come to realize that they can’t let the externals of matches weigh heavily on them. Otherwise, they will end up like Ana Ivanovic, filled with talent but just as filled with mental clutter which prevented the Serbian from playing her best. Ivanovic is a classic example of a player who felt the weight of the moment so acutely that her body could not relax and perform with mechanical fluidity in pressure-packed scoreboard situations at important tournaments. 

Many young players — now and always — wrestle with this fundamental and central challenge of evolving on the court. One particularly prominent example from the past 11 months of life on the WTA Tour is Anett Kontaveit.

Three times at majors since late May of 2017, Kontaveit has faced a formidable WTA opponent. Three times, she won the first set. In two of those matches, she faced a player who had reached a major final at the time. (Today, it can be said that both players have won a major final.) In two of the three matches, Kontaveit served for the match.

In all three matches, she lost.

At the 2017 French Open, she powered past Garbine Muguruza in set one and played on level terms for a portion of set two but couldn’t stay in the ring. Muguruza wore her down — that was not a bad loss at all. It marked a very encouraging for the Estonian, who was 21 at the time.

What is discouraging about the loss, nearly a year later, is that it did not lead to improved habits and responses under scoreboard pressure.

At Wimbledon just over a month after the loss to Muguruza, Kontaveit served for the match twice against Caroline Wozniacki. She lost her serve both times, faltered in the second-set tiebreaker, and lost the match in three sets, failing to reach Manic Monday and the Round of 16. Wozniacki certainly battled and forced Kontaveit to play, much as she did against Jana Fett in her career-changing escape at this year’s Australian Open, but nevertheless, Kontaveit got tight and lost a match she should have won. She was great until the precise moment when the weight of serving for a match oppressed her.

Fast-forward to that same 2018 Australian Open in which Wozniacki used a match-point escape to win her first major. While Woz was authoring a story for the ages, Kontaveit — close to her first major quarterfinal appearance — led Carla Suarez Navarro a set and 4-1. 

She lost the second set.

To her credit, she battled back and earned a chance to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third set.

She got broken at 15 against a five-time major quarterfinalist, but someone who — at age 29 — has had a mental block in terms of reaching major semifinals. 

Let’s briefly recount the career of Suarez Navarro: She tried to gain her first major semifinal at the 2014 French Open against Eugenie Bouchard. She took a 5-2 lead in set one and lost the set in a tiebreaker. She bounced back to win the second set and take a 4-1 lead in set three. Somehow, she lost the plot one more time and ceded 12 straight points to Bouchard, who rallied to win that match 7-5 in the third.

Kontaveit-CSN at the Australian Open might have involved a matchup of players born seven years apart, but they exhibited a lot of the same characteristics. Not being able to finish off Suarez Navarro — a player with her own history of failing to cross important thresholds — carries a little more weight for Kontaveit than if she had played an opponent with a better reputation in crunch-time situations. (Pick any of several — forget the elites such as Wozniacki or Muguruza or Serena or Venus; merely someone such as CoCo Vandeweghe or Jo Konta would not have carried the same level of disappointment for Kontaveit. CSN, though richly deserving of a satisfying win from her perspective, represents an opponent an up-and-comer doesn’t want to lose to in the fashion Kontaveit lost.)

Now we return to the clay season. Kontaveit looked very, very comfortable hitting through the court in the first set and a half against Muguruza — a very big hitter in her own right — at Roland Garros last spring. Kontaveit is far too early in her career to think she won’t ever make the jump from an “almost” player to a richly accomplished player. There is no grand mystery here. She simply has to walk over the coals of pressure and close down one of these matches instead of letting them continue to slip through her fingers.

Anett gains can still be made by the Estonian. Time is not yet her enemy. Gaining peace with her wrenching experiences in the past 11 months at majors is her big task.


Image taken from Zimbio


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