By Richard Evans
“Pressure is a Privilege” is a Billie-Jean King saying many of today’s women’s players have picked up on and re-quoted. But a significant number of them haven’t been able to use it to their advantage.
Being thrust into the world spotlight as a result of your own ability and achievements has proved too much for a surprising range of champions from Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, Li Na, Petra Kvitova and, in a slightly different context, Amelie Mauresmo and Eugenie Bouchard.
The fact that there are not so many examples of male players reeling under the weight of success may have something to do with the fact that the Top 4 have had such a lock down on Grand Slam titles over the past ten years that very few men have been able to sneak in and do something stunning and unexpected.
No so with the women. Serena Williams’ fluctuations in form, fitness and health have enabled many rivals to grab opportunities in spectacular fashion and then struggle with ways to handle what happens next.
Jim Loehr, a top performance psychologist who has treated hundreds of players over the past few decades, is well acquainted with the syndrome. “They think, ‘What have I done? Am I really this good? Is this real?’” Loehr has watched time and again as a minor incident or a small injury has sown the seed of unnecessary doubt.
“It just opens the door to doubt,” says Loerh. “And at the same time they are being bombarded by fans and the media. They find they don’t have the freedom they had before; there’s not so much time for practice, sleep and rest. Someone needs to be telling them ‘Don’t panic, this is normal’. Coaches, especially, need to understand and help them through this business of being a new-born star.”
Ivanovic, whose career went into a tail-spin after winning the French Open in 2008, is a prime example. Li Na, with the expectations of hundreds of millions of Chinese on her back, took a long time to get over winning in Paris in 2011. It was the same for Kvitova after she won Wimbledon for the first time three years ago. Both Li Na, who won the Australian Open this year and Kvitova who re-claimed her Wimbledon crown in July, have bounced back as more confident competitors better equipped to handle the pressures of success.
Safina, who lost in successive Roland Garros finals in 2008 and ’09, never quite fulfilled her potential or the totally unfair criticism that came with being No 1 in the world without having won a Slam. In the end, it ruined her career and she retired early.
Ivanovic, who was playing so well this year before crashing out of the US Open in straight sets to the 42nd ranked Karolina Pliskova in the second round, is still struggling with the emotional issues that go with being a glamorous star, idolized by millions.
Ana talked at length about the problem at her press conference at Eastbourne the week before Wimbledon this year. On being asked about the impact of winning the French title at such a young age, Ivanovic replied, “When you are in it, it is hard to see. You’re emotional. You’re views are blurred. But it is import to be aware that worrying doesn’t solve anything. You have to take action.”
Ivanovic, at 26, insists she is happier now even though she is not as highly ranked as she was at 20 but admits that she still carries the baggage of that Roland Garros triumph with her. “I always feel I have to match that,” she says. “But I know I have to get rid of the past to embrace the future.”
After her loss to Pliskova in New York, Ivanovic said, “I do put a lot of expectations on myself. I tried to over-analyze and over-think instead of just playing the game. It’s a work in progress.”
Ivanovic also admitted that her form at the Slams has disappointed her. “I really want to re-assess how to approach the Grand Slams maybe differently and see what I did wrong in my preparation.”
Loehr says it is no good ignoring the differences between men and women in their emotional make up. “Women have a more intricate network of emotional connections than men and it helps them in many ways,” he says. “But it also makes the journey more challenging. Their chemistry is more complex; they have monthly cycles – it’s just the way the body works.
And the pressure these players feel is not just about performing on a big stage in an important match. Mauresmo could handle that and proved it by winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006. But she never got past the quarter finals in front of her own French crowds at Roland Garros.
No need to explain that ‘home country’ problem to Bouchard. Her record of two semi-finals and a final in three Grand Slams this year is remarkable for a 20-year-old but when she had to play in Montreal amidst all that Canadian hoopla and expectation she found the whole thing far too much. Before the end of the first set of her first round match against the American qualifier Shelby Rogers, she was telling coach Nick Saviano, “I just want to get off court.” She lost 6-0, 2-6, 6-0. The situation was exacerbated by an undisclosed injury which Eugenie had been dealing with since Wimbledon.
It is no surprise to Martina Navratilova that women have more difficulty coping with sudden success than men. “Women want to be perfect,” says one of the game’s great champions. “They are much more concerned about what they look like and how they perform than men. The guys can fake it. They seem to have shorter term memories that enable them not to linger on the bad stuff. Women have more issues to deal with.”
The good news is that many seem well capable of learning how, over the long haul, to handle the pressure and so make sure that eventually they can, indeed, look upon it as a privilege.
Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 160 Grand Slams. He is author of 16 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He was the play-by-play commentator for BBC Radio at Wimbledon for twenty years.