How to Overcome the Almost Impossible in Tennis

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    Johan Kriek on Muguruza’s success over Serena Williams at Roland Garros

    Serena Williams, World No. 1 and reigning French Open champion, was severely trounced today by a fairly unknown Spaniard Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza played almost the same type of tennis Ana Ivanovic played against Williams at the Australian Open, where Ana trounced Williams as well. These two matches should be on every WTA player’s iPad to see how it is done. And these two losses in Majors should be a lesson for Serena on how to combat such situations that she has rarely faced, but now will face more and more.

    I watched both matches and the approach to beating Serena was identical. Here are some very important facts to know for players and coaches:

    1. Study your opponent. This means knowing her/his strengths and if she/he has any weaknesses to design a strategy on how to take advantage of those. Every player has “weaknesses”.

    2. Find a way to watch your opponent either in person, have the coach do it, or scout his/her videos online. It is very important in today’s world to use technology.

    3. Work on play patterns on your own serve and also play returns in practice to emulate how hard and where to return serves, especially second serves, which are great opportunities to sting the opponent. Clobbering second serves and putting your opponent on the defense immediately is a great way to boost confidence but also it puts tremendous pressure on the server, no matter who the server is.

    4. Do NOT give up on your game plan. Yes, you have to play “as it comes to you” but you have to stick to a strategy and game plan even if you make some mistakes. Do not give up on it and all of sudden begin to play “safe and not to lose”.

    5. Keep points shorts and “compact”. Against tough opponents you are better off having them hit as few balls as possible.

    6. Stay aggressive in court positioning, which requires courage, quick feet, and very quick reflexes in preparation for the groundstrokes. Move to the ball.

    7. Focus on staying on task with execution. Do not let any mistakes bother you. Go through rituals and stay positive at all times to execute.

    8. Focus on the process vs. the “result”. One is not on court to lose! That is a given. So focus on each point, think it through clearly, and then go for it!

    9. Absolute concentration. No looking at the coach, mom, or the Grand Slam players’ box! It is up to you out there to make it all happen.

    10. Enjoy the challenge and pour on the “turbos” when closing out the set or the match. Be absolutely convinced that it is your “day”.

    So, here is what I saw happen today between Serena and Muguruza.

    Serena started the French Open convincingly. There were no “hiccups” and she was clearly still at the top of her game. But being always at the top perhaps let her be a little too complacent. I have rarely seen Serena being pushed around and made to look slow and awkward in her movement on the court. However, it has already happened twice this year: Ivanovic beating Serena at the Australian Open, and now Muguruza at the French Open.

    Obviously, Muguruza “took it to her”. She was totally concentrated, she kept her composure no matter what, she stood her ground right on the baseline, and swung freely on her groundstrokes and went for it. It also helped that she served well especially down the middle on the deuce court, and she jammed Serena quite often on her forehand. Serena rarely misses her backhand returns so Muguruza served a lot to her forehand and it paid off. When pressure is applied relentlessly we can see that even the toughest opponents out there get frustrated and will start missing. Muguruza knew that she needed to keep the pressure on no matter how many mistakes she made, and she did not allow Serena any time to regroup. That frustrated Serena to no end, and Muguruza was aware of that happening. The Spaniard also drilled groundstrokes down the middle of the court forcing Serena to change directions off very deep and fast groundstrokes, and Serena kept missing her shots. That was a very smart strategy by Muguruza and she kept at it.

    Serena is not used to getting thumped and one could see the resignation on her face at 1-4 down in the second set. It happens to the best at times. Again, great strategizing by team Muguruza!

    When I started playing the pro tour, Vitas Gerulaitis beat me twice in the quarters of the US Open. By the third match in Europe I had decided to completely change my game plan and instead of “managing as I go along” I decided to attack him from start to finish, beat him to the net, hit hard and often from the baseline, and keep him off balance (mostly mentally) because he was one of the fastest and smoothest movers out there. I said to myself over and over, “no fear” and stick to it no matter how much my “panic button” is buzzing. I did not care if he beat me 0 and 0; I was going to play “my way” or go home. I beat him easily and never lost to him again. I did the same thing against John McEnroe and although he won most of the big matches against me, I got to beat him many times. One of the best matches I have ever played was against McEnroe in San Francisco where I beat him 7-6, 6-1. I played flawless tennis. Everything was “on” and from then on I knew I could beat him as long as I focused on the right stuff and played to win.

    It takes bravery to think this way. You have to first do it before the match and then apply it on the court. Not easy to do but it may be the only way to beat a much higher ranked player. As they say: “No guts, no glory!”

    Photo: si.robi (Creative Commons License)
     
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