One of the more spectacular tennis evolutions I have witnessed was Juan Martin del Potro’s 2009 season, especially within the context of three meetings against Roger Federer that year.
Del Potro was crushed in January at the Australian Open, 3, love and love, an 18-games-to-3 beatdown. It seemed that the young Argentinian hopeful would need a lot of time to solve the puzzle Federer presented to him.
Delpo surprised us all. He led Federer two sets to one at Roland Garros and was right there with a chance to win — tied 3-3 in the third set — a few months later in Paris, before ultimately falling just short. He learned a lot from the January encounter. He then put the final pieces together at the U.S. Open in September against Federer. He turned the tables, authoring his own comeback from two sets to one down. That major championship remains — alongside his 2016 Davis Cup journey with Argentina — his finest hour as a tennis professional.
Del Potro’s evolution in 2009 was a three-step process, a journey which was rapid yet something which makes sense to many of us. Blowout loss, close loss, victory. Step one was the education, step two was the experience of battle and possibility — the full range of emotions which emerge when victory is a realistic prospect — and step three was the complete application of the lessons taught by the first two steps.
With this in mind, I am left to marvel at Wang Qiang after she stunned Serena Williams in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open on Friday.
Wang went from step one to step three. She didn’t need step two. She took what could have been a layered chase with several components over a prolonged amount of time and compressed it into a tidy two-part story. She went from the blowout loss at the U.S. Open to the winner’s circle without an intervening step in between.
She served for the match and got broken because Serena elevated her game. She played a second-set tiebreaker for the win, but got nervous in the cauldron of pressure. When Serena took this match to a third set, not a single soul on this planet had to wonder who the betting favorite was.
It didn’t guarantee the outcome, but among the tennis movies we have seen a lot over the past 20 years, Serena fighting back from the edge is one of the most common ones.
Wang Qiang didn’t care. She turned the page, enjoying the fact that she was playing terrific, low-mistake tennis. She continued to play low-mistake tennis after that shaky breaker.
Someone on Twitter commented to me that Serena looked exhausted at the end of the match. Whether that was actually true or not is beside the point. The real point is that winners have a way of making losers look tired.
What I mean by that statement is simpler than you might think: The winning player displays a bright, vibrant presence which can make the opponent seem less formidable or imposing. The opponent might be tired; she might not be. The key takeaway is that the winner didn’t give an inch, reshaping the contours of the battle.
The notion of “fighting” as a competitor seems simple enough to grasp on the surface, and to a certain extent, it is. Remain aggressive. Go for shots. Hit the ball with conviction and a clear mind.
Yet, “fighting” isn’t just a reflection or measurement of intensity. Camila Giorgi is a very intense player, but her intensity doesn’t lead to beautifully-calibrated shots under pressure. Fernando Verdasco is an intense, emotive player, but that intensity isn’t always a friend. It sometimes cuts against him.
Part of “fighting” involves concentration. If you are locked in cutthroat competition, being attentive to the situation and carrying yourself with a certain degree of calm — not being overwhelmed by that break point you just squandered or the set you just allowed to slip away — is part of the process.
Wang Qiang truly fought for this match. The requisite intensity was there. So was the needed degree of concentration. She displayed the technique and form needed to ask questions of Serena, but she also displayed the inner steel to respond to the queries Serena posed.
Wang Qiang didn’t merely learn; she learned quickly. She goes to the head of the class in Melbourne.