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Serena Williams and the steering of the mind

The challenge of being human transcends hitting a tennis ball or any immediate task, but the larger reality of life includes everything within it. Most of us don’t negotiate with other world leaders or power brokers over a peace agreement or an intercontinental economic relief package. Most of us don’t sing a Puccini opera on New Year’s Eve in Rome. Most of us don’t argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. Most of us are trying to do our jobs well, and not go insane caring for our children, and balance our checkbook without having high blood pressure.

In the small tasks as well as the big ones, in quiet everyday life moments as well as the spotlight occasions, the human challenge often comes down to little more than this: Enabling the mind to get out of the way of the body, or the various distractions which can mislead us, or the frustrations which can drag us down.

Human beings generally want to do what they want to do. If they could just have enough peace and quiet, they could perform the tasks the day puts before them, and they can go to sleep knowing they either made a meaningful advancement or at least prevented something bad from happening.

Having a day which feels like a victory takes small forms for most people on this planet.

For Serena Jameka Williams, having a day in which she shakes hands at net and continues to play professional tennis is a victory.

She is still playing after a victory on Wednesday in New York against Anett Kontaveit.

Tennis balls were hit. Serves were smashed. Pressure was encountered. A woman nearly 41 years old faced the second-ranked player in the world, and the tennis version of a senior citizen won.

Serena wasn’t faster than Kontaveit. She wasn’t fitter than Kontaveit. In a prolonged three-set match — these sets did not race by in 25 minutes, let’s put it that way — the outcome should have gone in only one direction.

It didn’t.

To be sure, Serena served well enough and defended well enough to make this match close from start to finish. The version of Serena we saw in set one against Danka Kovinic on Monday would not have won this match. The version we saw in set two, however, looked noticeably better. That player had a chance against Kontaveit, and we saw a slightly better version on Wednesday.

Serena didn’t play an incredible match versus Kontaveit. “Incredible” would mean turning back the clock to 2015, or even 2018, and winning even though Kontaveit played at an elite level. This was not that. The quality of tennis was hardly incredible.

However, we can certainly say that Serena turned in an incredible performance.

The way she competed. The way she attacked. The way she regrouped after being broken when serving for the first set. The way she later regrouped after a forgettable second set. The way she steered her mind and body through a long, complicated match and beat a far younger player in an extended battle.

The challenge of being human — defeating the distractions and subduing the frustrations — transcends sports, but sports present the clarity of that challenge in such a real way. That’s why we, as observers of sports, are so drawn to these competitions.

We can’t relate to a millionaire — that part of being an athlete is inaccessible to most — but we certainly can relate to the frustrations of being on a tennis court and knowing how difficult this sport is to play.

Serena Williams has the fame, the money, the trophies, the stature, and an eternally secure legacy as a legend, an icon, and one of the greatest champions in any sport (let alone tennis itself). How did she get here? She knows how to guide her mind.

We can go deep into the weeds on this match, but we can instead put the matter so much more simply: Anett Kontaveit was a starstruck human being who was thrilled to be playing Serena Williams.

Serena Williams was thinking about how to win a tennis match.

We’re aware of the massive media focus on Serena’s every move, knowing the last match of an unfathomably glorious career will occur at some point in the next fortnight. Serena knows more than anyone else how much pressure and emotion and nostalgia land longing are bound up in this experience at the 2022 U.S. Open. If anyone should be vulnerable to distractions and a cauldron of competing, strong emotions, it’s Serena.

Yet, on Wednesday, she was the one who processed this match clearly. She was the one who thought through situations and what they demanded. Kontaveit was the athlete who seemed stuck in this theater of tension and excitement, unable to adjust or find a Plan B.

Serena looke like she had a plan. Kontaveit did not. It was a graduate school course on how to guide the mind in and through stress, how to cope with pressure and distractions. Serena Williams is still teaching tennis players how to handle the central task of a pro. What a deliciously simple realization to take away from a match which will not be the last one Serena ever plays.

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