Friday, April 5, 2019

In Charleston, players show insight about their struggles

Alona Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)
One of the things that has stood out for me this week at the Volvo Car Open is the way several players have addressed their losses and analyzed their difficult times on the tour. What I heard from them amounted to quite a bit of self-examination and insight.

The most prominent example would be Alona Ostapenko, who talked with us about how things have changed for her since she won the French Open in 2017. (Ostapenko has also had to deal with injury since that victory.

"I think the most important is to be just fearless like I was there," she said. "I was just not trying to miss the ball and I was just going for it. And I didn't think too much, because after everything changed so much, and I'm thinking much more like during the points. Also I'm trying to get rid of it and just try to be fearless and play again the way I played there."

On the subject of finding her fearlessness again, she continued: "Actually, I have realized that it's like once you don't have, like not don't have it anymore, but once you start to think too much, it's very hard to get rid of it, and it's hard to get that feeling, like fearless feeling again, because I'm in a different position right now, like ranking-wise and also a Grand Slam champion. And, yeah, like people, as I said, expect more from me. But I think now I deal with this pressure already enough, so now it's much better than it was."

Ostapenko also said that she realizes that she doesn't have to rush the points--that when a rally goes on for a while, she is likely to  win it.

Monica Puig (photo by Daniel Ward)
Monica Puig, whose career has been oddly flat since she won an Olympic gold medal in 2016, also addressed the idea of redeeming fearlessness, and she said that Ostapenko's words resonated with her.

"So sometimes, you know, when you have those weeks like I did at Rio, and all of a sudden you're a Grand Slam champion or Olympic gol medalist and all eyes are on you all of a sudden, and you expect so much more from yourself and you don't tolerate yourself losing in the first round of a tournament or you expect yourself to get to the quarterfinals or better every single week, there's that added pressure and you're just kind of like, when it's not there, you're discouraged, you get disappointed. And then losses and confidence issues.

"But, you know, I think it's just settling into your own skin and just saying, hey, you know, it happened, it can happen again. And I didn't play that way by chance. It's in you. It's always going
to be in you. You just have to find the courage to bring it out time and time again."

Puig said that she has had to change from being a results-oriented person to a process-oriented person, something which obviously goes against her nature.

Sloane Stephens (photo by Daniel Ward)
Leave it to Sloane Stephens to distill her feelings about a slump into a few choice words:

Why did you want this one more than other ones?

"Because I'm tired of f___ing losing!...You gotta figure it out somewhere, and it kind of like eventually gets going, but you have to, like, make it happen for yourself. Like I have to show energy and fight and try to like turn it around for myself."

Aryna Sabalenka (photo by Daniel Ward) 
Aryna Sabalenka was also quite humorously forthcoming about her work with a sports psychologist:

"I actually worked with her for like, two years, and it's really helped me a lot, because two or three years ago I was like really deep, like really crazy. Like if you look back, like, try to find some matches--ITF tournaments--you'll see the big difference. Right now I am still crazy. I still get pissed like really easily, but it's better. Still need to improve."

If we listen--really listen--to these athletes, we can pick up some tips for our own lives. Tennis, after all, is about winning, losing, setting goals, staying in the present, and challenging our assumptions about ourselves. Sounds like life to me.

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