Tennis With An Accent podcast guest and longtime tennis coach Jim Fannin told me in December that tennis players need to rethink how they approach the most important situation in a match.
Fannin told me that when trying to serve out a set at 5-4 or 5-3, the idea of “holding serve” was not the right way to conceptually frame the situation and visualize the totality of the moment. Fannin explained why he teaches his players to scrub the verb “hold” from their vocabulary and replace it with a different verb: TAKE!
“Taking serve” is how a player should approach these 5-3 or 5-4 crucibles, because the physical act of holding refers to the process of keeping something and not letting it get away. Holding is a protective or defensive act in which the human person is inwardly focused and might move away from someone (or something) to ensure that s/he retains possession of an object or some other entity.
TAKING, on the other hand, is an outwardly-focused, proactive, forward-moving process. Go out and get it! Claim it! Seize it! “Taking serve” offers a way, in Fannin’s eyes, for players to reconstruct how they deal with this supremely pressure-packed situation and turn it into an opportunity more than a burden.
This is the kind of reimagining Donna Vekic and Alja Tomljanovic need to engage in after their Sunday losses in the championship matches of two different WTA tournaments.
Vekic led the first set of the St. Petersburg final, 5-2, against Kiki Bertens, and lost the set, 7-6, en route to a straight-set defeat. Tomljanovic led the third set of the Thailand Open final, 5-2, when Dayana Yastremska took a medical timeout which — to be polite — was questioned by some observers. Tomljanovic’s concentration was busted by the timeout. She lost her serve twice in a row and eventually lost the match.
Obviously it’s wrong to take a medical timeout if you don’t actually need it.
With that said, if you’re up 5-2, you can’t use that as an excuse. You have to focus on your end and take care of business. https://t.co/FLSDg73Wet
— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) February 3, 2019
You don’t need me to lecture about sports psychology and the #INNERGAME of tennis. All I need to tell you is that when players keep running into the same problem — as Vekic and Tomljanovic are — the need for a reframing of situations is central.
Vekic lost four championship points in the Washington, D.C. final last summer and fell to Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets. Tomljanovic had Elina Svitolina on the ropes in the first set of the 2018 French Open and let that set slip away. She had Simona Halep on the ropes in the early rounds of Cincinnati last summer, and couldn’t close the door.
In life as in tennis, the same lessons have a way of boomeranging back to us — again and again — and demanding that the next time we confront a familiar challenge, we find a better response.
Whether from Jim Fannin — and his “take serve” mind-changer — or from their own coaching teams, Donna Vekic and Alja Tomljanovic know what they have to change.
The search continues.