PLAYING IN THE WIND

Serena Williams

By Allen Fox, Ph.D. c 2013, all rights reserved

The only player who can beat Serena Williams is Serena Williams. She is superior to almost every player on the women’s tour in every aspect of the game except emotional stability. She moves faster, hits harder, and serves immensely better. If she doesn’t self-destruct nobody has a chance against her. And she did her best to do just that in the 2013 US Open final when she allowed the wind to unhinge her emotional system. 

At the beginning of the match she acted as if the wind were behaving immorally in disrupting her shot-making. There was a hint of arrogance in her petulance, as if the wind needed to make an adjustment for a player of Serena’s greatness, rather than the other way around. She often acted like a frustrated child after wind-induced errors, gesturing to the Heavens as if the Gods were picking on her. Luckily for her, she pulled herself together somewhat by the end of the first set. She stopped bemoaning the wind after every error, (only bemoaning it after every other one) and then was simply too good a tennis player for Azarenka and won the set.

Throughout, Azarenka provided a dramatic and admirable contrast in maturity and emotional control. She didn’t once acknowledge the difficulty of the wind or Serena’s great shot-making. She just kept plugging along, coming back from a two service break deficit to win the second set in a tiebreaker. Of course she was aided by Serena’s continued whining about the injustice of the wind in disturbing her game, but her calm demeanor allowed her to execute her own shots with commendable consistency in spite of the conditions. Added to this was a good deal of nervous play and choking by her opponent, but the saving grace of Serena’s performance was that she never quit. Yes she will choke but no, she won’t quit, and she’s won many championships because of it.

And the 2013 US Open Championship was no exception. Though she made it harder for herself than necessary, Serena just had too many weapons for Azarenka and won going away in the third. In the process Serena set a very poor example for young players. Don’t try to handle windy conditions the way she did unless you are, as she is, twice as good as your opponent, and even then it’s not a good idea.

The common wisdom is that wind is a great equalizer. In my opinion, it often is not. In fact windy conditions favor the strong-headed, emotionally disciplined players. Strong wind causes players to make more errors than usual. They will miss shots that in still conditions would be routine. The weaker-headed players cannot accept this. It upsets them. Instead of simply resetting their error thermostat, accepting that they will make more errors than usual, and making necessary tactical adjustments, they mope around complaining about the wind and continuing to make mistakes. It is the typical excuse-making scenario.

The strong-headed players recognize that the problems caused by the wind must be handled like any other problems – you either fix the problem (in which case there is no longer a problem) or do whatever you can to deal with it. Here, fixing the problem would involve making the wind stop blowing. Since that’s not going to happen, you have to devote your energies to dealing with it. Your emotions must be controlled just as always. If you get frustrated and upset over errors, whatever the cause, you will simply make more mistakes and increase the likelihood of your own defeat. If it’s windy accept that reality and keep your mind on the business of executing your game plan.

In addition there are a number of tactical adjustments that can help your execution under windy conditions. They are:

  1. Be prepared to move more and hit less precisely than normally. The wind makes it more difficult to hit close to the lines so you have to hit a few extra shots rather than your usual compliment of winners. And you will also need to take a few extra small positioning steps to get the erratically moving ball into your strike zone.

  2. Use shorter backswings. This is because the ball is moving unpredictably, and by the time you get the racket around with a long backswing, it may have been blown out of your accustomed strike zone.

  3. Use more topspin when playing with the wind, and hit flatter when playing against it.

  4. Hit the ball relatively hard. This is because the faster the ball moves the less time the wind will have to act on it. Thus the shot can be hit with more normal accuracy. Many players slice their backhands more when they are playing with the wind and let the wind carry the ball. This is generally a mistake since they can’t be as accurate and will more often lose control of the point.

  5. Use topspin lobs when playing against the wind and high defensive lobs with it. Avoid doing the opposite.

  6. Get more first serves in the court by playing them safer. Depending on the strength of the wind, this may require that you spin your first serve in rather than going for the big flat one. This is because the wind will move the toss around and make it more difficult to hit precise serves.

Even with these tactical adjustments, attitude is the key to performance on a windy day! It’s best to look at it as an interesting and challenging experience. You will have problems, but so will your opponent. And if you remain clear-headed, they are largely solvable.

Recent, The Mental Game

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