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The Quirky Side
There is the dark side, the blind side, and then there is the quirky side. Today, after watching a week of women's tennis at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open, we're examining the quirky side. And just a quick note before we get deeper into quirkiness (and we will). Kim Clijsters won the tournament, beating Maria Sharapova, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2 in a stunning comeback after a rain-delayed final yesterday afternoon and evening.
Going into the match, I was determined to ignore the typical way we look at a tennis match. Aces, unforced errors, winners….ah, for this match, let’s give that analysis a pass. I wanted to look around the edge to the quirky side.
Click photo: The women do not have a monopoly on odd tics. Watch Roddick's comic imitation of Rafael Nadal.
After watching dozens of women’s matches this week, certain quirky patterns had emerged and I wanted to see if Clijsters and Sharapova were following the crowd in their quirkiness or making new inroads. What were their weird little tics and idiosyncrasies? What were they’re superstitious routines, especially in dealing with the serve.
The women’s game has seen an epidemic of serving problems among the top players, from Dementieva, to Ivanovic, to Jankovic, to Safina, to Petrova, sometimes to Venus Williams, and to Sharapova herself. How was Sharapova doing now to control her serving heebie-jeebies? And was Clijsters as utterly free of these oddities as I remember her?
Jim Loehr Clones?
Sports (and now business) psychologist Jim Loehr was the first to declare the importance of managing your time and energy between serves. Loehr said “the best players had each built almost exactly the same set of routines between points. These included the way they walked back to the baseline after a point, how they held their heads and shoulders, where they focused their eyes, the pattern of breathing and even the way they talked to themselves.”
Now it seems everyone in tennis has become a Loehr devotee, with most of the women players adopting a rigidly formulaic routine between serves. First, after the point ends, turn your back to the net. Stare and/or adjust your strings. Get over the disappointment or excitement of the last point. Second, receive the ball from the ball kids. Regain your composure and focus. Third, turn back to the service line. Fourth, do a little light pitter patter with the feet to loosen any residual tension. Make the final decision on how and where to serve. Sixth (I’m tired already). Serve the damn ball.
Why did I lose patience describing a pattern that is repeated by dozens of top women players, and seemingly all other women on the way up? It doesn’t seem to be working. As I noted, errant ball tosses, hiccupping service motions, double-faults at critical points in a match have all been too common in the women’s game over the past five years.
Click photo: Maria Sharapova seems to have eliminated many of the quirks and tics from her service routine, however, she is still very deliberate and takes much more time when compared to Kim Clijsters (below).
Are men exempt from quirkiness? By no means. Superstitious rituals and bizarre behavior also seem to be gaining ground. We used to think Goran Ivaniševic was strange for demanding to serve with the same ball if he hit an ace. Now we have Novak Djokovic bouncing the ball 18 times before serving it, Rafael Nadal lining up his water bottles to face the same way, and well, Rafa making an equipment adjust to the rear of his shorts after each point (if the NBA’s David Stern ran tennis, would he allow this to continue?). But for whatever reason, the men don’t seem to be as rigid about adopting the same service routines, nor do they seem as afflicted by the service yips as the women.
Clijsters and Sharapova
So are on the quirky-scale, where do Clijsters and Sharapova stand? Going into the match, I would have said Clijsters was a 1 (not very quirky) and Sharapova a 9 (pretty darn quirky). Who is a 10? Marion Bartoli. The Jim Loehr routine described above is much too tame for Bartoli.
After each point she turns her back to the net, takes a few to several vigorous practice strokes, pounds her feet in a ferocious staccato, ending with a split-step and perhaps another practice swing or simply shooting both arms straight out in a Bruce Lee double-strike. Revved up, calmed down, or simply purged of demons–I can’t tell–she calmly turns back to the court to face her opponent. Fortunately, her opponents have turned their backs to the net, sparing themselves the alarming spectacle of Bartoli’s Saint Vitus' dance.
Click photo: Kim does have a routine, however, she doesn't dwell on it. Many times she had to hold up her serve to wait for Sharapova to get ready.
My previous casual observations of Clijsters was that she played quickly with no routine, and that Sharapova was as robotically rigid about following Loehr’s managed time advice as any player. Throw in the hair adjustment around each ear before each and every serve and the little dance step, and I anticipated that when it came to the quirky award, Sharapova would win hands down.
Ah, but here is where careful, detached observation brings the two seeming opposites closer together. Clijsters does have a routine between serves. She takes the ball from the ball boy, tucks one under the skirt, and bounces the other ball several times as she walks up to the service line. She steps up to the line, bounces the ball 2-3 times, and then serves. She seems to progress through the several stages of managing time (and nerves) between the points more rapidly than just about any other women player I witnessed this week.
Sharapova, on the other hand, has become decidedly less quirky. Her routine between points is about one-third slower than Clijsters, but she is a bit less mechanical in the way she conducts herself than in the past. She has also, thank you, completely dropped the hair adjustment around each ear before the serve. She bounces the ball just a few times, and then gets to work.
Ironically, while Clijsters still has the edge when it comes to non-quirky service routines, it was Clijsters who suffered all the service woes in the first set and a half, double-faulting several times. So let’s examine the rationale for these routines a bit further. And while this newsletter isn’t the vehicle for analyzing why these routines may be less effective than their practitioners would like to believe, perhaps I can end with a future path to explore.
The Rationale for Routines
In his DVD, “Defeating the Monsters in Your Mind,” TennisOne Senior Writer Ken DeHart says that routines are ways of turning your mind to automatic. It’s long been acknowledged that conscious thinking can interfere with athletic performance. The goal of routines is to switch off the conscious mind, letting the unconscious, automatic mind take over, just as it does when we drive a car. DeHart lists seven good reasons for tennis players to adopt routines:
- They remind us of sequences to performance.
- They create a comfort zone for us.
- They help prevent us from forgetting steps that can influence our success.
- They assist us in performing on an automatic level under pressure.
- They can calm us under pressure.
- They can prevent us from rushing during a match.
- They can assist in defeating the “Mental Monsters” of success and failure.
Is Mental Toughness Training Working?
Taking a step back, one can see that these routines are important tools in what we now call mental toughness training. So if everyone has the benefit of the new science of mental toughness and the routines designed to calm nerves and steady execution, why are so many professional women tennis players afflicted with inordinate serving stress? Is the mental toughness emperor wearing any clothes?
As I noted earlier, we don’t have time to explore this question fully. But allow me to bring one bold voice to your attention if you haven’t read or listened to him before. It’s our own Happy Bhalla, who in his DVD, “Achieving Peak Performance the Wholistic Way: The Mental Game,” and his fine series of articles in TennisOne, has challenged the mental toughness training establishment thinking–and with it, many of our Western-based assumptions. In sum, Bhalla says mental toughness training is inherently contradictory, as it tries to get an athlete to “let go” of the results in order to, well, achieve higher results. According to Bhalla, if you care deeply about the result, it’s inevitable that you will feel great pressure to achieve those results. No deep breathing, no routine of turning your back to the net, and no constant fiddling with your strings will change that.
The Razor's Edge
So is the answer not to care? No, as yet another TennisOne writer, Heath Waters, used to say, you have to care and not care at the same time. This is the razor’s edge described in ancient Indian texts:
"The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard” – Katha-Upanishad
“And that’s it, Kim? You’re leaving us on the razor’s edge?” Okay, I feel a little bad, even if you were forewarned that we couldn’t fully explore this topic. But I haven’t left you without resources or allies. I invite you to further study authors DeHart, Bhalla, and Waters (among others) in the TennisOne archive and in our Writers Store. Stay quirky, my friends.
- Ken DeHart DVD in the TennisOne Writer’s Store, "Defeating the Monsters in Your Mind," Members – Public
- Happy Bhalla’s DVD, "Achieving Peak Performance the Wholistic Way: The Mental Game," Members – Public
As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.
From the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open
- American Hopeful Not Quite Ready for Prime Time – Christina McHale, a rising young American star, was given a reality check last night by veteran tennis star Kim Clijsters at last night’s Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s Open in Mason, Ohio. The “reality check” came in the form of a 6-1, 6-1 thumping where McHale was outgunned and outplayed.
The Forehand Return of Serve
The return of serve is perhaps the least practiced stroke in the game of tennis, and yet it is the second shot hit on every point. Here, Christophe Delavaut's in-depth examination focuses on the common threads of the forehand return. Christophe shows you how eight top professionals duplicate the exact same movements while executing the forehand return of serve.
The Fundamental Movement in Sports
Ivan Lendl was quoted in July 2010 Tennis magazine as saying, “When you don’t move well, you don’t get to the shot, and if you don’t get to the shot, I don’t care how good you are, you can’t hit it properly.” Tennis is all about movement, yet rarely does a player run more than five or six yards, so quickness more than speed is paramount and quickness is all about the first step. Vic Borgogno shows you how to use the split-step to improve your quickness.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Samantha Stosur's Forehand
This 26 year old Australian veteran turned pro 11 years ago but has been on a bit of a tear recently. She has captured one title this year, two overall, but in the past she has been known as a doubles specialist with 22 titles under her belt. She's amassed $5 million plus in prize money but the story here is her ranking, which has climbed to 5th on the WTA singles list. An all court player with a two and one-handed backhand, equal fluency at the baseline or the net, but Samantha's game revolvers around her wicked kick serve absolute, absolutely the best kick serve on the women's tour.
TennisOne Writers Store
One of your many new benefits as a TennisOne membership is your ability to purchase selected instructional DVDs at 20% off ($7.50 off each) in our new TennisOne Writers Store (login in first to access members links):
- "Building Your Serve from the Ground Up," Jim McLennan Members Public
- "Building Your Ground Game," Jim McLennan Members – Public
- "Building a Kick Serve," Jim McLennan Members – Public
- "Achieving Peak Performance the Wholistic Way: The Mental Game," Happy Bhalla Members – Public
- "Building a World Class Serve," Phil Dent Members – Public
- "Building a World-class Volley," Dave Smith Members – Public
- "Keys to Modern Tennis Technique: One-Handed Topspin," Doug King Members Public
- "Best of Ken DeHart," Ken DeHart Members – Public
- "Corrective Techniques & Myths," Ken DeHart Members – Public
- "Defeating the Monsters in Your Mind," Ken DeHart Members – Public
- "Skills, Drills, and Games for Beginning Players," Ken DeHart Members – Public.
- "Drills for Intermediate Players," Ken DeHart Members – Public
- "Drills for Advanced Players," Ken DeHart Members – Public.
- Click here to see all the benefits of a TennisOne Membership.
- Click here to sign up for a risk-free, TennisOne 30 day free trial membership.
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