Serena Williams and the fight for tennis equality

September 10, 2018

Naomi Osaka, a new star of women’s tennis won the singles crown at the US Open of 2018. But the headlines were all about the losing finalist Serena Williams, and her battle with Umpire Carlos Ramos.

The match filled the front-page headlines as well as the sporting columns around the world. It captured triumph and disaster, Kipling’s two impostors long associated with tennis and sport. It was raw emotion mingled with tennis of the highest quality.

The setting: Male and Female GOATS.

Serena Williams is crowning a glittering career at the age of 37 by returning to competitive play less than a year after becoming a mother. One final goal eludes her. Winning her 20th singles title at a grand slam event. This would exceed the record set many years ago by the Australian player Margaret Court, and match her 24 total including doubles events.
It matters to Serena. Maybe to add weight to the claim by many players that Serena is the Greatest Of All Time Female (GOAT) tennis player, matching Roger Federer’s claims as the male GOAT. The debate is intensifying as both Roger and Serena find a resurgence in form at an age when less super-humans are planning their subsequent retirement plans.

Maybe the motivation is fuelled in part by a controversy over the stance of Margaret Court over Women’s rights, led by Billie Jean-King, a mentor of Serena Williams, and a formidable champion in her own right. Over time, Serena has also fought vigorously for equal pay and other forms of equality for women tennis players.

The young pretender

Facing Serena is Naomi Osaka, a 20 year old Japanese player little-known outside the world of tennis. Insiders, however, have noticed her arrival among a group of emerging young players who have been able to achieve grand slam tournament successes. This has been assisted by the interruption through Serena’s maternity period. Indeed, Serena faced Osaka shortly after return, in a tournament in Miami, and lost 3-6, 2-6, The loss was largely ignored as happening at a fortuitous time for the young Japanese player. This overlooked the unexpected recent result in winning her first senior event in the Indian Wells tournament.

The Serena Slam

Serena went close to achieving the exceptional feat of a clean sweep of grand slam events in the year 2015. She was already champion of three of the four annual tournaments, the Australian, French, and Wimbledon. The story began to reach beyond the tennis reports.
The climax was to be at the US Open, always held in early September. It became labelled The Serena Slam.
I remember it well, as I decided to follow the entire tournament as it unfolded, from Europe, taking as my theme the tensions facing sporting superstars. The story was as fascinating as I hoped. I wrote a book about it, titled Tennis Tensions. The tensions, as so often happens, upset the happy ending for Serena at the time. She went out at the semi-final stage. I suspect that this experience added to Serena’s motivations to end her career with a slam not a whimper.

The Osaka Serena match

The crowd had already delighted in an American success. In the mixed doubles, the ebullient  Mattek-Sands scraped though with partner Jamie Murray, providing  a satisfactory prelude to the main event.

The singles final started with the high-tension Flushing Meadows crowd in even more high-tension mood than usual. Overwhelming support for the last American hope of another victory of the tournament. Williams conceals any nervousness with customary ferocious body language which can reinforce feelings of inadequacy in opponents. But this opponent matches her in physicality and shot-making.

The unlikely starts to happen. Williams is rattled. Fails to deal with the aggression and sprays losing shots. Osaka plays with the freedom granted to the player no one expects to win. Breaks. Then breaks again to take the first set. Pundits expect Serena to reestablish the rightful order of things.

Except it works out quite differently. Serena is now visibly unsettled. Ready to find pressure release valve. Which she does with misdirection of her energies towards the Umpire.

What follows is documented accurately in many reports. What is less clear is the assessment of what happens. Serena receives a warning for (illegal) coaching from her coach. Serena is incensed and demands an apology of the umpire.
Play continues, Serena is unable to gain control, loses serve, smashes racquet, receives a second correct code violation.
The match is drifting away, and Serena redoubles her invective directed at the umpire. Receives third correct code violation of loss of a game virtually gifting the match to her young opponent who manages to look as nothing untoward is happening, and it it is, it really is nothing to do with her. Remarkable composure.
No good can come of this.
The match still requires winning. Osaka finds the mental resources to finish with a strong service game. The match ends. Recriminations begin. What should be a joyous victory ceremony ends in tears from the winner. Serena pleads with the crowd that they treat the winner with respect.

The wider issue

The wider issue is hotly debated. Although the term debated is to strip what happened of its intense emotions and beliefs asserted.

Broadly, there is support for Serena, who states in her press conference she was fighting for women’s rights. Others, including Billie Jean King agreed that there are double standards at play. The alternative view is that the unfolding events left the Umpire with little choice.

Truly a dilemma of leadership. Perhaps it is the dilemma facing the umpire that offers most learning opportunities. What might have happened differently. Is it possible or desirable to ignore context? The context of the importance of the match? The long experience of a top umpire including Serena’s celebrity status, and at times her melt-downs at perceived injustices to her, and in her view to others?img_08401


Roger, Rafa, Serena, Venus. Form is temporary, class is permanent

January 28, 2017

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The Australian Open singles finals became the sporting event of the year when four of the greatest tennis players of their generation faced off for the titles

January 2017: Melbourne Australia. Four great tennis players have battled to reach the finals. None had started the tournament as top seed. The tennis tensions are palpable.

All four have shown astonishing resilience against younger and arguably fitter opponents. It was all the more unusual because all four had been written off before the tournament on grounds of injury, Ill-health, and advancing years.

Andy and Novak battle for top seed

In the men’s game, for nearly a year Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic had been fighting for top dog (or top seed, as they prefer to say in tennis.) Roger and Rafa were left behind.

Roger, after a career of injury-free successes had succumbed to the perils of fatherhood, namely prepared his twins for their bath, and severely damaging his back when turning the tap on. (I couldn’t have written that in a fictional account).

Rafa after an equally-illustrious career but one blighted with injuries was recovering from his latest injury time-out. His appearances now reveal residual damage to knees, legs, fingers (ugh, particularly unpleasant looking.)

Recently they met to share medical reports, dreaming of one day when they might be both fit enough to limp on to court for one last public match.

Serena versus Venus

In the women’s game, the Williams systers had already become medical phenomena with debilitating conditions which has not prevented them from collecting multiple titles individually and just for fun as a devastating doubles partnership.

The younger sister Serena became by far the strongest and most talented and winningest woman player of her generation. Venus, by comparison Spiderwoman to Serena’s Superwoman, would also hold more singles titles (but fewer doubles, probably) if her sister had not been around.

A year ago, Serena reached the pinnacle of her career in the Senena Slam in New York, widely touted as the tournament in which she would be crowned as winner of all four slams in a calander year. Partly through nerves she slipped up. Since then she has won out only on  injury bragging-rights.

However, earlier in the tournament she summoned up her remarkable depths of bouncebackability to sweep past the new British hope Joannah Konta. She is installed as favorite once again.

Age shall nor weary them

Age shall nor weary them. This weekend, the tennis world watches with huge anticipation the battle of the four thirty-something’s. At clubs around the world, the four golden-oldies will be celebrated by millions of mere mortals, some still swinging as the decades slip by.

A tweet from Donald?

Donald Trump used the US Open to launch his political career. He may just find time for a phone-call to Australia or maybe a tweet today.

To be continued


You won’t believe this special offer and where Donald Trump comes into it

January 12, 2017

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The pun in the title of my book, Tennis Tensions, has done me no favours. It has attracted attention mainly from people interested in the important but unintended issue of the tension in tennis racquets not in tennis players

Now the mighty Amazon organization has helped me clear up the confusions. Click here for more information.

Starting today, [12 January, 2017] a clarification is offered for purchasers of the e-book version. There seems to have been interest from business and sports professionals and teachers.

To encourage would-be customers, the message comes with special offers over the next week, after which the price returns to at least the price of a cookie and latte at your favourite computer cafe.

To explain in my own words:

Tennis Tensions is a case study of forty critical matches played in the course of the US Open in September 2015. It examines the tensions revealed, in order to understand the factors influencing a drop off in performance.

This is the tournament in which Serena William is competing to achieve what became known as The Serena Slam, winning all four Gram Slams in a Calendar year. The pressures to succeed are even more intense than usual.

In the Men’s tournaments, other stories develop. The top seed and favourite for the Singles title is Novak Djokovic. He becomes the prime target for a crop of emerging young talents seeking to beat the top gun. The great Bryan Brothers are suffering a dip in form, and are in danger of failing to win any of the doubles trophies in the four Grand Slam events of the year.

How do players cope with the tensions of the moment and deal with performance anxiety?

And Donald . . .?

Ah, yes. Donald Trump. In a light-hearted passage, I speculate on the motives of a political hopeful who had unexpectedly turned up at the tournament. What happened next? You’ll have to read the book.

There you have it. If you are interested in tensions influencing the outcome of sporting contests, act now to save yourself the cost of a coffee. Oh, and tell your friends.


Ronaldo says he is best in the world, Serena says she is Superwoman. Self-esteem of our sporting icons

November 6, 2015

This week, Christiano Ronaldo announced he was the greatest football player of his era. Serena Williams thwarted the theft of her mobile phone and compared herself with Superwoman. Together with the self-obsessed comments of Jose Mourinho, the stories raise interesting questions about the fragile egos of some of our sporting heroes and heroines

The Special One

The stories are familiar to sports fans around the world. In football, the apparent decline in the fortunes of Chelsea Football Club has been accompanied over several months by a remarkable series of outbursts by Jose Mourinho, the self-styled Special one. This week his doting fans at Chelsea roared support as his team won their mid-week Champions League match. His agent has also come to his defense as Jose continues to make headlines with interviewers in which he appears to be increasingly self-deluded. He has most recently lost his appeal against a £50,000 fine and a different punishment of a stadium ban.

Read the rest of this entry »


Tensionitis and Performance Anxiety

October 9, 2015

Eva AsderakiThe recently completed US Tennis Open provides excellent examples of the tensions and anxiety that reduce performance. We look at the stories and what the top players do to overcome the problems of ‘tensionitis’, and suggest relevance to business leaders.

Let’s start with the stories that emerged as the tournament unfolded, before looking at the  tensions which might have been important as factors in their outcomes.

First, there was talent and courage of the players which gave so many moments of high drama.

The Serena slam story did not have the intended fairy-tale ending. Instead it had a quirky, unexpected and delightful conclusion.

The clash of the titans when Novak and Roger met was as heroic as might have been expected.

The Big Serving Guys (BSGs)

The Big Serving Guys (BSGs) such as Eisner and Anderson did a lot of damage in earlier rounds, putting out seeded players including Kai Nishikori and Andy Murray.   But the BSGs all eventually stumbled out to the very top players.

In this respect I wanted to reserve the classification of BSGs for very tall players using their greater height to produce unreturnable serves. (‘unreturnable serfs’ as my predictive text put it, sounding slightly Scandinavian). Federer had a great serve which wrought havoc. But he fits into the rare category of a more normal-sized player with an exceptional serve.

The conclusion reached is  that BSGs have developed a style of play which gives then advantages over the games in a set until a tie break is reached. In tie breaks the advantages are balanced out by their inexperience in the pressures of having to avoid dropping any point, particularly against top players who have been learning about the serving patterns of the BSG. This means BSGs win slam events more rarely than might be expected.

Tensions and performance anxieties

When we look more carefully, we find examples of how tensions influenced performance in numerous matches starting from day one to the finals of the last two days. No player was completely immune. Even Serena had been showing unusual signs of fragility under the great pressures of closing out the Serena slam.

The great struggle between Federer and Djokovic in the final  again showed that even the greatest players have to deal with nerves as critical points approached. In that final, both the players mostly showed astonishing skills at what has been called Thinking Clearly Under Pressure (‘TEA CUP’). But  clarity of thought is always fighting against more emotional processes. Put another way, as the sports psychologist Jim Peters puts it, we all have our inner chimp to control.

Some points for reflection

Point 1.   However Godlike we treat them,  even the greatest players have to deal with the tensions of the moment. They may just have exceptional control over them rather than being controlled by them.

Johanna Konta and Simona Halep each could be taken as an example of a player who overcome performance anxiety. In the past, each of these of these young players had suffered from serious problems of inconsistency which were holding back their potential. Joanna chose to work with a ‘mind coach’ who specialized in reducing anxiety pressures of financial managers. Her story became more widely noticed as she beat several top twenty plates as she built up a winning streak of eighteen winning matches. Simona’s story is even more remarkable. She turned to a new coach partly to develop her serve into a powerful weapon. She also confessed she needed help as she had lost all confidence under pressure. Under her new coach, Simona moved up to World No 2.

Point 2. Performance anxiety is deep-rooted but can be controlled. The player may find it easier with a new mental approach introduced by a new coach.

John Isner had won 108 service games without one loss in this year’s and part of last year’s US Open. But when Federer took him to a tie break and unleashed another service winner of his own, Isner abruptly hit the wall and could not make a first serve. Performance Anxiety or the dreaded ‘Yips’ had taken over his play.

Point 3. When a playing strength which has brought success is not working successfully, the tensions mount. An automatic pilot action is interrupted and the player starts thinking, so ‘staying in the zone’ becomes increasingly difficult.

During the tournament, several players found ways of reducing tension often involving self-harm. Murray is well known for smacking himself in anger. Interestingly, having now dispensed with her mind-calming coach, has reverted to self-abuse slapping her sole vigorously. Kyrgios sulks, pretends to give, and calculates fines for racquet abuse. Coco V destroyed a racquet with such enthusiasm, that a U Tube of the violence went viral

Point 4 Violent physical action is a widely-found mechanism for tension release. There may be diminishing returns on such approaches though the effect known as habituation. The press is essentially defined as a decline in response for a specific applied stimulus.

Rafa Nadal is a case study of tensions nearly overwhelming a great athlete. The symptoms are easier to identify than to remedy. After a period of near invincibility on clay courts, Rafa sustained serious injuries and time out. On returning to tournament play he was clearly no longer invincible. While this period of recovery was to be expected, but other players realised they had a chance to beat him. His loss on the clay courts of The French Open helped as the French say to ‘encourager les autres’

Nadal had slumped to No 8 in the rankings in the US Open before losing to the unpredictable Italian Fognini. At the press conference he showed his awareness that he had to his mind overcome his nerves even if he had lost the match

I fighted until the last point all the time, good attitude. Not enough to win today. I lost a couple matches this year like this. But the good thing is my mind allows me to fight until the end as I did during all my career. Sometimes this year I was not able to do that. So I am happy with that. I enjoyed the crowd. Was amazing support out there. Just very special feeling be out there with that support. I enjoyed that. I tried to fight until the last ball. I believe I did, but was not enough today.

Point 5 Rafa knew he had to overcome mental as well as physical problems in returning to the top table of the game. He seems to draw comfort that although he lost, he lost not because of nerves. However, this may not of itself be enough to deal with the problem. He has to date remained loyal to his ‘Uncle Tony and coaching staff. Maybe he will have to take the tough decision that Halep, Murray and others took to make progress.

Discussion welcomed

Discussion is welcomed on the issues raised in this post.