Mattek-Sands’s Aggressiveness Succeeds Against Li
By GEOFF MACDONALD
After a lost year spent rehabbing various injuries and learning that she had several food allergies, Bethanie Mattek-Sands scored the biggest win of her career Thursday, beating the 2011 French Open champion Li Na in three sets. The match was played in cold and drizzly conditions, but Mattek-Sands followed her game plan to perfection and finished the match with a steely calm as she swung out aggressively and never let up on Li. Mattek-Sands broke Li’s serve three times in the third set, hitting out on her return of serve and beating Li at her own game.
What was remarkable to watch was how Mattek-Sands stuck to her game plan, competing for each point with an unwavering intensity, even as she inched closer to winning. Her ability to finish against such an experienced, formidable opponent speaks volumes about the strength of her mental game.
Because there is no clock in tennis, and because a player must continue to win points to secure a victory, the momentum of a match can turn on one misplayed shot. Anxiety can soar as the end of a match draws near. Some players grow passive and defensive, keeping the ball in play and hoping for an unforced error. At the other end of the spectrum, a player will break a disciplined game plan and go for broke, hoping to hit winners to avoid doing the dirty work of finishing off a tough opponent.
Chuck Kriese, the former Clemson men’s tennis coach, used to teach his teams to think of closing out a tennis match as similar to breaking a small boulder into a hundred gravel sized pieces. Each player has three tools to choose from: a pillow, a chisel and a chainsaw. The pillow represents the tentative, soft approach of slowing down racket head speed and pushing the ball. The chainsaw is the reckless, impatient, overly aggressive choice. The chisel is the correct tool to use: patient, workmanlike, unflashy, but in the end, effective.
It takes extraordinary discipline to “chisel the rock,” to stay in the moment and play each shot according to a predetermined plan rather than a momentary impulse or tempting choice. To master one’s nerves and not yield to the temptation to either play it safe or go for broke is often what separates the top-ranked players from the second tier.
Mattek-Sands never wavered from her plan to wrest control of the point away from Li by serving big and returning with accuracy and aggression. In her post-match news conference, Mattek-Sands described her thoughts and feelings as she got closer to the finish line.
“Definitely, you get a little excited,” she said. “I try not to think of the score, actually, because that’s something you can’t control. You know, for me it’s having a plan before I serve and sticking to that.”
During her time away from the tour, Mattek-Sands dedicated herself to becoming as mentally tough as possible. In a May 9 article on SI.com, she explained her plan to improve the mental side of her game.
“Everyone talks about the game being 90 percent mental now,” she said. “But does everyone spend 90 percent of their time on the mental side? No, not really. Everyone is on court working on skills. So I tried to work more on the mental side. My goal at the start of the year was to be the mentally strongest player on tour. I think that’s a goal I can reach.”