It was inevitable that Serena Willaims would lose a match eventually; what is important is how that match was lost and what effect that loss will have on her chances of completing the calendar year Grand Slam.
Those who play tennis know that so much of tennis is a mental game. Confidence plays a critical role in the one on one combat that is a tennis match. Players can practice for hours but they can never emulate match conditions and the accompanying emotions. Players will often say they need to get match tough if they have been out of competition for any length of time.
In the men’s game Rafael Nadal has been struggling. Whereas in the past Nadal was unflappable on critical points in a match, this year has been different. Nadal has lost that ability to fend off break points and serve his way out of trouble. Shots that were winners now seem to find the bottom of the net. To everyone’s shock Nadal openly admitted he has lost a lot of confidence in his game. In an effort to regain his confidence before the hard court season Nadal played and won a small tournament in Hamburg. Watching Nadal lose to Kei Nishikori in Montreal this week, it was discernible that Nishikori was full of confidence whereas Nadal did not seem to be as aggressive as he normally can be.
In contrast to Nadal, the year Williams has had on court has been phenomenal. Williams has a win loss record of 43-1, including three Major titles. One would think Williams’ confidence must be sky high at this point in the season, but that may not be the case. The other night after she posted a straight set win over Andrea Petkovic of Germany, Williams said she did not think she played all that well and that there was lots of room for improvement. Maybe Williams was alluding to something that wasn’t in the stats, maybe she could feel her confidence slipping away. Maybe Williams was starting to feel the pressure, the pressure of always being expected to win, the pressure to be so much better than everyone else, the pressure to win the USOpen, the last Major of the year.
In contrast to Williams shouldering the pressure of her Grand Slam chase, Belinda Bencic had nothing to lose. No one expected her to win, no one had expected her to be in the semifinals, no pressure.
Serena Williams plays a carefully constructed schedule of tennis tournaments, making sure she is fresh for each major title event. In the past this strategy has worked but now heading towards the US Open she may need more match play to get that confidence back. As Williams heads to Cincinnati for the next leg of the hard court season, she may be searching for that lost confidence. Her defeat in Toronto, however, may have other players believing that if Bencic could beat her maybe they can do it too and with belief comes confidence.
If winning the calendar year Grand Slam was based solely on tennis skills, Williams would have it all locked up, but the role of the mental game in tennis can never be underestimated, and that’s what makes the Grand Slam so elusive.