How Swiatek’s sports psychologist honed her mental game

WTA Insider speaks with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz about the perils of professional tennis and the importance of training the mind as much as the body.

Daria Abramowicz can think of no better research lab for sports psychology than the high-stakes, high-stress world of Grand Slam tennis. The 33-year-old Warsaw native has served as Polish phenom Iga Swiatek’s sports psychologist for nearly two years, traveling with Swiatek’s team to big events to help address the challenges of playing on the tour.

The 19-year-old has been an unstoppable force in Paris, booking a spot in her first Slam final in just her second main draw appearance at Roland Garros. Unseeded and ranked No.54, Swiatek paved her own way over the fortnight, defeating last year’s finalist Marketa Vondrousova in the first, playing pitch-perfect tennis to oust top seed Simona Halep in a 6-1, 6-2 masterclass, in the Round of 16, and showing no signs of nerves or pressure as she played as the clear favorite to defeat Martina Trevisan in the quarterfinals and Nadia Podoroska in the semifinals. Swiatek is now the first Polish woman to make the Roland Garros in the Open and just the second all-time, following Jadwiga Jedrzejowska, who was a runner-up in 1939.

It is rare to see a young athlete not only employ a full-time sports psychologist but to also speak so openly about her struggles and successes in handling the psychological strains of being a professional athlete.

“I just believe that mental toughness is probably the most important thing in tennis right now because everybody can play on the highest level,” Swiatek told reporters after her fourth-round win. “But the ones that are tough and that can handle the pressure are the biggest ones.

“She just made me smarter. I know more about sports and I know more about psychology and I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud.”

“So I always wanted to develop in that way. I was working with some other psychologists, two probably when I was younger. But Daria was the best I could get because she just understands me very well and she knows me very well and she can kind of read my mind, which is weird.

“She was a sailor so she has experience in sports and she was a coach so she has the full package. She just made me smarter. I know more about sports and I know more about psychology and I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud.

“She just makes my confidence level higher.”

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Serving Is Mental. So Stop Thinking So Much.

Some of the best players in the world have struggled with one of the most basic shots in tennis at the French Open.

PARIS — Raffaella Reggi rose to 13th in the world in women’s tennis in the late 1980s despite a serve so balky she once recorded 28 double faults in a match in Rome. With the shrill voices of fans pleading with her to use an underhand motion still ringing in her ears, Reggi said she walked into the press room afterward and professed, “I have no idea how to serve.”

Watching a player repeatedly start points by hitting balls into the net or, in the German Alexander Zverev’s case, beyond the baseline, can be excruciating.

“I had some flashbacks,” Reggi said of Zverev’s double-fault-filled performance in his United States Open final defeat to Dominic Thiem.

It’s akin to actors forgetting their lines during a soliloquy. You sit there, helpless to assist, willing them to get back in the flow. If all the court’s a stage, double faults are a tennis player’s inner heckler lashing out.

Mary Carillo, the NBC analyst and former French Open doubles champion, said, “It’s almost always the same culprit: nerves.”

How the anxiety seeps into the technical execution varies. It can be a wandering ball toss that throws off one’s rhythm or a tightening of the limbs that makes it harder to bend the knees and execute the natural arm swing. The challenge for those struggling with their serves, Carillo said, is to fight the instinct to bend the ball into the box slowly and carefully and instead accelerate their racket head speed.

“More action at the point of contact gives more margin, not less,” she said.

The serve is the only stroke in the sport where the player exercises complete control of the moment. It is a stand-alone action, so when the moment goes awry, there is stand-alone accountability.

The 23-time major singles champion Serena Williams, who has one of the most potent serves in the game, said that on those rare occasions when her best weapon is misfiring, “My brain is like: ‘Oh, my God! I never miss this!’”

The embarrassment of being a professional unable to execute this elemental shot faithfully can be acute.

“I mean, in practice I make the serves,” said an exasperated Coco Gauff, who opened the French Open stalking the baseline between service points yelling, “Focus!” as she piled up 12 double faults in a victory against Johanna Konta.

In the next round, Gauff had 19 in a three-set loss to Martina Trevisan of Italy. The 16-year-old Gauff has averaged almost 15 doubles in her last four matches.

“It’s just confidence, just a mind thing,” said Gauff, who added: “I don’t really think it’s a technical thing. I mean, we talk to a lot of people. Sometimes I mess up and hit a bad toss. I mean, when I’m out there on the court, I know I double-fault a lot, but I try not to think of it.”

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Whisperer Serving Tip: Lighten up on your grip to accelerate the racket head. Most players ‘choke the chicken under stress’ particularly on serve.

Are Underhand Serves Underhanded? Tennis Is Opening Up to the Crafty Tactic

Players concede that the serve can be a good tactic against players who stand far, far back from the baseline. And they know when opponents are trying to show them up.

Neither the pioneer nor the present-day popularizer of the underhand serve has been in Paris this year during the French Open.

Michael Chang, who won the tournament with a clutch use of the serve in 1989, is back in the United States, spending time with his wife, Amber, and their three young children. Nick Kyrgios is back in Australia, spending time on social media as a freelance tennis critic, which should make for some testy conversations with his peers when he finally does return to the circuit in person.

But Chang’s and Kyrgios’s legacy has been on frequent display in the first week of the Grand Slam tournament.

Underhand serves, once broadly considered underhanded in the sport, have been popping up in the autumnal gloom like mushrooms in the French countryside.

Peak season may have been Wednesday. In the stretch of a couple of hours, you could watch Alexander Bublik hold serve with an underhander (it seems time for a punchy, one-word term), see Sara Errani save a match point with one and watch Mackenzie McDonald save nothing at all with a floating, sacrificial offering of an underhander that the 12-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal pounced on for a return winner en route to a 6-0, 6-1, 6-3 victory.

“If he’s winning, it’s a good tactic; if he’s losing, it’s a bad tactic,” Nadal said. He added that, for example, it was “not a good tactic” for Mackenzie. For Bublik, he said, “if that works,” it was “a good tactic.”

Unfortunately for Bublik, it did not work often enough. He lost his second-round match to Lorenzo Sonego in a duel that was also brimming with other tennis exotica, like serve-and-volley tactics and tweeners.

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Ask the Pro: Volley 101

Here’s a quick guide to the art of the volley:

  1. Volley Ready Position: The proper ‘ready position’ is to make sure your elbows are in front of your body.  Too often players stand too upright with their elbows tucked in behind their body — the result is they are slow to react because they have to move their body out of the way to hit the ball. Elbows in front increases your range of motion and speed to the volley.
  2. Move Your Eyes on the Volley:  It takes too much time to move your head, and you can’t recover quickly enough for the next shot.

Great to see a slow and steady improvement in our players in our Ladies Clinic practising these tips.

Cheers,
The Tennis Whisperer

 

ATP: Quick Guide to the Art of Doubles Play

  1. Manage the ‘real estate’ by understanding the 80% Rule.  80% of shots are in a 2-metre circle around the centre serve box!  Given a choice to defend always move to protect the centre of the court.  You might not make the shot even so you’ll have a play most times!
  2. Doubles is a Team Sport because one player gets to stand in a winning position without hitting a ball! The server’s, and the receiver’s job is to get the ball to their partner at the net. So much easier to win points at the net!
  3. Be a  ‘Threat” by your court presence.  Impose yourself when you’re at the net to intimidate the opposition.  For example Howard (big guy dominating the net) or Netto (fast guy moving around on the net) can cause opponents to make more errors!
  4. 80% First Serves.  Take a little off your first serve to start the point and serve 2/3 of your serves preferably to the opponent’s weaker side. Statswise, you’re more likely to win the point, you have more time to reach your volley position AND your partner has a greater chance of hitting a winning volley — a threefer! Besides your opposition is much more apprehensive about returning the first serve.
  5. Deep to Deep, Short to Short.  When you’re deep behind the baseline, simply return the balls higher over the net and deep within your opponent’s court.  A lob is a great shot to accomplish this particularly when your opponents are at the net.  Conversely, when you are drawn forward into the service box, try to keep the ball short, and preferably on the ground, so your opponents have to hit up — and you can volley down to finish the point.

Cheers,
MTC Tennis Whisperer

ProTip: When Should I Attack or Defend?

Question: I hit the ball fairly well but often am unsure of whether to ‘attack’ or ‘defend’ while playing a point.  What’s a basic strategy to make this choice simple?

Ninety percent of players spend their time on court trying to improve their technique, and particularly so when their serve or backhand breaks down under pressure or they commit a lot of errors. Often the “cure” suggested by their pro is more stroke lessons to either improve the suspect stroke or cut down on errors.  The next 9% or so figure out what the strengths of their game are: strong serve, volley, forehand weapon, speed around court, and try to play their strength(s) as much as possible against their opponent’s weakness. In case you have been doing the maths, the last 1% have actually figured out how to play/adjust against their opponent’s game.

Regardless of your strengths, your basic game starts with a clear understanding of when to ‘attack’ or ‘defend’ since ultimately success in tennis goes to the player who hits the ball over the net and into the court the last time! The so-called ‘pusher’ understands this very well and wins when his/her opponent overplays the ball — and their errors and frustration increase exponentially .

Many years ago, Billie Jean King wrote about a simple ‘traffic light strategy’ of dividing the court into green (safe), yellow (caution) and red (danger) zones. The strategy was based on a player’s ability to get close enough to the net to safely hit down on the ball. 

Here’s a simple figure I prepared some time ago to illustrate the basic principle:

It’s fairly obvious that a taller player has an obvious advantage by being able to see ‘over the net’ from deeper in the court. It also follows why the pusher wins if you are trying to constantly attack from the baseline — the odds are stacked against you! 

You’ll have noticed that in the modern game, the top players use more topspin to drive the ball up and over the net when closer to the baseline to overcome the disadvantage of being deeper in the court.

To be certain you understand the principle here’s a side view:

Hence, the simplest game plan of all then, is to figure out where your red, yellow, and green zones are and play accordingly.

When you are in the red zonedefend and keep the ball in play; in the yellow zone, hit approach shots to take control of the net by moving into your green zone. When in the green zone with a ball bouncing higher than the net, attack!  

This game plan also goes by another name — percentage tennis!  It may not be spectacular as ‘first strike tennis’, but success has a nice warm feel to it!

And even if you are trying to play ‘first strike tennis’, there are many times — and particularly on big points, when ‘first strike tennis’ is NOT your best option! Just watch how Roger and Rafa play the big points in tie breakers or when down set point or behind on serve.

Become THE ‘smarter player’. It’s always nice to come off with a win regardless of how poorly/well you hit the ball. In fact Brad Gilbert wrote a book about playing smart when you are outgunned. He called it –“Winning Ugly”.

Rob Muir, USPTA
MTC Tennis Whisperer

Contact Rob Muir

ATP: You’re never too old to regain that lost muscle.

Starting sometime in our 30s (the data aren’t precise), we lose up to 8 percent of our muscle mass per decade, a decline called sarcopenia, along with up to 30 percent of our strength and power. This leaves us weaker, less mobile and — especially after we cross age 50 — more vulnerable to injury from falls and similar accidents.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Men and women can regain some of that lost muscle mass and, importantly, stay strong enough to enjoy youthful activities well into their winter years, experts say.

You’re never too old to regain that lost muscle. And you can do it at home. “Building and maintaining strength is one of the most important things you can do at any stage of life, and it’s extremely important after age 50,” a sports medicine physician said.

Read more —>

Source: Washington Post Wellness

Here’s How Nadal Plays Tennis Like A Chess Grandmaster

Rafa dictates patterns of play in 5-8 shot rallies

The perfect storm in a tennis match is Rafael Nadal hitting either three of four balls into the court.

Not more. Not less. 

Just three or four moves is all it takes for the Spaniard to lure his opponents into checkmate.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis shows that Nadal is in a class of his own in mid-length rallies of 5-8 shots. The data set is comprised of players who competed in a minimum of 20 matches at ATP events on Hawk Eye courts from the beginning of the 2018 season.

The three rally lengths commonly measured in tennis are:

•0-4 Shots (First Strike)
•5-8 Shots (Patterns Of Play)
•9+ Shots (Extended Rallies)

It’s important to note that rally length in our sport is predicated by the ball landing in the court, not hitting the strings. So a “three-shot” rally is a serve in, a return in, and a winner, while a “two-shot” rally is a serve in, a return in, and an error. That explains a “zero-shot” rally, which is a double fault. The ball simply didn’t land in the court.

The inner workings of Nadal’s formidable game can be best understood when it’s dissected by how many shots he ideally desires to win a point. It highlights efficiency and intent.

Nadal won a head-turning 59.7 per cent (652/1092) of points in the 5-8 shot range from 33 matches. Next best is Diego Schwartzman at 55.9 per cent (547/978), putting the Spaniard almost four percentage points higher than his closest rival. Novak Djokovic sits in third place, having won 55.5 per cent (1043/1879) in 5-8 shot rallies.

Source: ATP Tour

Ask the Pro: Dubs 101

Here’s a quick guide to the art of doubles play:

  1. Manage the ‘real estate’ by understanding the 80% Rule.  80% of shots are in a 2-metre circle around the centre serve box!  Given a choice to defend always move to protect the centre of the court.  You might not make the shot even so you’ll have a play most times!
  2. Doubles is a Team Sport because one player gets to stand in a winning position without hitting a ball! The server’s, and the receiver’s job is to get the ball to their partner at the net. So much easier to win points at the net!
  3. Be a  ‘Threat” by your court presence.  Impose yourself when you’re at the net to intimidate the opposition.  For example Thomas  (“blitzkrieg” big guy dominating the net) or Netto (fast guy moving around on the net) can cause opponents to make more errors!
  4. 80% First Serves.  Take a little off your first serve to start the point. Statswise, you’re more likely to win the point, you have more time to reach your volley position AND your partner has a greater chance of hitting a winning volley — a threefer! Besides your opposition is much more apprehensive about returning the first serve.

Great to see a slow and steady improvement in our players in our Ladies Clinics practicing these tips.

Cheers,
The Tennis Whisperer

 

Finding a way to win! Inside The Joker’s Head @AO

Djokovic won his 17th Grand Slam at the Australian Open. And while I’m not a fan, there are some key lessons for us tragics!

Conventional wisdom tells us that on big points, we should play to our strengths. Djokovic admitted that when the big points came in the AO final, he did the opposite. Both times this baseliner rushed the net, and both times he came up trumps with the backhand volley he needed. [Coach Goran believes stats can sometimes be overrated particularly on big points and has caused Federer to lose two Slams.]

What does that tell us? That Djokovic has a strategic sixth sense? That fortune favors the brave? I would say it shows that in tennis, execution is underrated. By making those crucial volleys, Djokovic turned a tactic that was at best counterintuitive, and at worst reckless, into a winning one. And he turned what easily could have been his third straight loss to Thiem into his 17th Grand Slam title.

Champions execute, and, yes, while it may not be as simple as it sounds, they do rise to the occasion. In his own complicated way, Djokovic proved it again last night.

Paraphrasing Tennis Magazine, here’s how the match unfolded…..

In the first set, he tried for an early knockout punch. He took the ball early, peppered Thiem’s backhand, and broke the Austrian in his first service game. Thiem got off the mat and broke back, but Djokovic won the set anyway with a brilliant stab return, and a Thiem double-fault, at 4-5.

At that point, you might have expected a player of Djokovic’s stature and experience to relax and run away with a straight-set victory. That’s essentially what he did against Roger Federer in the semis. Instead, he spent the next two sets running out of gas. Thiem was the guy who had worked harder and longer to get here, but it was Djokovic who was suddenly dazed, slump-shouldered, and staggering, and who needed a refrigerator’s worth of food and drinks to revive him.

“Turbulent, I would say,” is how Djokovic described his evening.

“It started off really well; I broke his serve right away. I felt the experience on my side playing many Australian Open finals. For him, it was his first.”

“After I lost the second set, I started to feel really bad on the court. My energy dropped significantly. To be honest, I still don’t understand the reason why that has happened, because I’ve been doing the things I’ve been doing before all may matches. I was hydrated well and everything. Apparently doctor said I wasn’t hydrated enough.”

Like Nadal in New York, though, Djokovic found a way to right himself just in time. The fluids kicked in during the fourth set, and his body language and stamina immediately improved. From that point on, Djokovic went back to doing what he does best: digging in and forcing his opponent to hit a perfect shot, and then another, and then another. Thiem, whether it was because he finally grew tired or finally tensed up, began to misfire on his biggest weapon, his forehand. He made Djokovic work to the bitter end, but he could never get his nose in front again.

“He was a better player,” Djokovic said of Thiem. “Probably one point and one shot separated us tonight. Could have gone a different way.”

Djokovic then alluded to the two most important moments in the match: The break points that he saved early in each of the last two sets, and that kept the momentum on his side of the net. Djokovic saved them both in the same, completely unexpected way: with a surprise run to the net.

“I served and volleyed when I was facing break point in the fourth and in the fifth,” Djokovic said. “It worked both of the times. It could also have been differently. Serve and volley is not something I’m accustomed to. I’m not really doing that that often.”

“I kind of recognized that as an important tactic in those circumstances, and I’m really happy it worked.”

Source: https://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2020/02/novak-djokovic-australian-open-turbulent-triumphant-17th-major-champion-rise/87312/