Woodbridge: more tennis, less stress key for Serena

Published by Todd Woodbridge

Serena Williams in action at the WTA tournament in Toronto (Getty Images)
According to Todd Woodbridge, Serena Williams needs to rediscover how to loosen up and thrive in big matches as she once did. And that comes with playing more matches.

There is a worrying trend happening for Serena; for the first time in her career she has lost four finals in a row.

Granted, her latest finals’ loss, in Toronto, came when she retired injured down 3-1 in the first set.

But from afar, it looks as though mental aspects may be causing physical distress. The mind is winning the battle over the body.

What I know from a playing perspective is that when you play your best, you’re instinctive, it’s natural, and you don’t force the play. Yet she seems to be forcing. When you force, there’s physical tension in everything. It could have contributed to those back spasms.

Serena’s whole career has been built around playing a limited schedule, but if she truly wants to reach this next level and break Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record, she has to do something she has never done before – and that’s to add more matches to her schedule, so she doesn’t break down.

Practice doesn’t replicate matches. She’s currently being careful in managing her body, but she’s not getting enough matches to test the body. Every time Serena has picked up an injury recently, it’s been coming back into tournament play with long gaps between events.

Serena currently only plays the biggest tournaments. But is there anything wrong with dropping down and playing a lower tier? Getting four or five slightly less intense matches, where she can play not necessarily at her best but still get through, could be a huge confidence builder and also provides the physical “miles in the legs” needed to recover for later in bigger events.

She’s still playing well enough to win majors. But from my observations it looks like she’s struggling with anxiety and tension with being so close to this record, literally wanting it too badly. It’s making it impossible for her to perform at her best.

I’ve watched her play some dominating finals – but the last three major finals have been the complete opposite of what made her so great. She now appears to be so anxious about the result that she hasn’t let the real Serena turn up.

Roger Federer went through this a few years ago – he tried to outplay everybody and beat them in three or four hits. Similarly, Serena seems to have lost patience within rallies, trying to win the matches in the first couple of games by brute force, instead of believing in her other strengths: great defence, keeping the ball in the court, changing up the play, smart tactics. It’s like if that initial plan doesn’t work, she feels like she’s in trouble, and panics.

There comes a point where every player has to just go out and enjoy the match, and the challenge, and loosen up. It’s obviously easier said than done. But it might be time for Serena to employ some reverse psychology: think, what an opportunity I’ve got. The result doesn’t matter. Remembering the pressure is all on the opponent, not on me. As opposed to: I’m on the brink of greatness.

If she can change that mindset, then those finals become much easier. But at her current age I think she needs to add to her schedule, not reduce it. Incredibly, Toronto marked the first time since having Olympia two years ago that she’s played five matches in five days.

The prime candidate she could use as an example is Rafael Nadal. Every time he’s won a French Open, he’s played all through the clay-court season. This year was an interesting example – initially it didn’t look like he was going to arrive in form in Paris after early losses in lead-up tournaments. He was forcing for a little while. But by the time he got into the back end of the French Open, it had become instinctive again. That’s what Serena hasn’t done for a long time.

If this North American summer doesn’t go the way she wants it to – she has since been forced to withdraw from Cincinnati – then I think it’s absolutely crucial she finishes the year playing matches and doesn’t close up shop again after the US Open.

If she truly wants to win that next major title, or two more majors, then she probably needs to play through Asia to be ready to go at next year’s Australian Open — not just starting in Melbourne after one tournament and seeing how it goes. As I found, once you get to a latter age, you can’t flick the switch like you used to. It takes take preparation and matches.

It will be interesting to see what transpires. And let’s hope she is up to the challenge, as it would be a shame to see her fall short of a record which she deserves.

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