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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Makes Us Win

Every player on tour has his or her own style—this is something we know. We might see some overlapping qualities among the very best, but each athlete brings his or her own unique flare to court, whether it be a favorite shot, eye-popping outfits or even sing-song grunting. What we often overlook, however, are the special ways players pull the very best from themselves in difficult moments. It's easy to comment on a player's inability to maintain focus or to say that someone is very collected on court, but what else boosts tennis players to their very best? For some, it's the love of victory. For other's, the pure hatred of defeat. Two women on the circuit portray these vastly different motivations above all others and they are two of the most well-known names in sports:

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

For 13-time grand slam champion Serena Williams, winning seems to be the ultimate reward. We've seen her claim many titles in her career, and every time it happens she looks just as thrilled as she was the first time; granted, some victories may taste sweeter than others (no one feels great walloping their sibling in a tournament final). Need proof? Just look at her reaction in the 2008 US Open final when she defeated Jankovic 6-4 7-5. This is a woman who loves to win.

At the same time, Serena is someone who doesn't seem to fear a loss. Down match point, Serena often looks lethargic, straight-faced or even downright bored with playing. She'll put on an "I'm over this" attitude, but then does the unthinkable, slapping untouchable winners at will. (Remember how she steamrolled Azarenka in the 2010 AO quarterfinals despite a set and double break deficit?) She allows instinct to take over, and for someone as talented as her, the only instinct she has is to win. It's in that moment, when she has denied her opponents a quick victory, that she begins to sense a new chance at life in the match, and if players are unable to shut her down immediately, she will see the finish line and get there herself. But if her bombs miss their marks and she is forced to take a loss, she accepts it for what is is. At no point was she afraid of defeat, but more so upset that she couldn't enjoy victory.

We see a very different style of mental toughness from big hitting Maria Sharapova. A 3-time grand slam champion herself, Sharapova has the skill and maturity needed to be a big-stage staple, but she handles herself quite differently. While Serena bursts with emotion her entire time on court, Sharapova maintains stern composure, only releasing signature "come on!"s after high-stake points. Commenting on her strict and silent intensity is always fairly ironic, however, considering quiet is rarely a word associated with Sharapova...

Regardless, the WTA's beautiful banshee is accustomed to victory herself, but in a noticeably different way, and not just in her on-court presence. Sharapova is an athlete that some might consider to despise loss as much (if not more so) than relish a victory. Clearly Sharapova cherishes each and every opportunity she's had to lift a grand slam trophy—I'm not saying she didn't—but never does she look more fired up and disgruntled than when she falls behind in a match. Whether it be break point or match point down, Sharapova forces herself to hit the ball harder and go for more even at times when she might need a little less. Her instinct, unlike Serena's, is not just to win, but to force the subject—crush your opponent before she can crush you. You might compare Sharapova down match point to a wild animal locked in a cage; she will find a way out with brute force.

In some cases, Sharapova's tactics work, and that's what has made her a champion. She's not a low-quality athlete throwing her weight around without reason; she's a tennis player who uses high risks to earn her high rewards. When she's ahead, she's ahead, and there's little chance for someone to break her confidence and power. In that moment, it's Sharapova at her best—a natural born winner taking the lead like she is comfortable doing. But when she's behind, it's a different story. She's not accustomed to losses and will go for broke in order to avoid it. This style is different and sometimes self-destructing, but it's who she is, how she plays, and what she knows. Sometimes a little fear is all a player needs to unleash greatness.

Pushing too hard, however, can result in 77 unforced errors.
With a 7-2 record against her Russian rival, Serena's love of victory seems to have an edge, but that's not to say Sharapova's can't-back-down attitude doesn't have it's advantages. Check the head-to-head between these two stars HERE for a look at the blowouts and marathons these players have endured against one another.

For now, all momentum appears to be on the racket of Serena Williams. Returning from a year without tennis and a ranking of over 150, Serena stormed Stanford with intimidating ease. It looks as though she has missed raising trophies.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor


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