September 3, 2015
It sounds crazy. But that racquet-smashing tantrum, the one that has made Coco Vandeweghe so famous, could help Serena Williams realise her ultimate dream.
Serena just has to choose to use it wisely.
On the face of it, there is little similarity between the psychological struggles of Vandeweghe and Williams. Coco lost her inner fight in dramatic fashion and now she is out of the US Open.
Serena won hers…just. But she was 4-0 down in a first-set tie-break against Kiki Bertens, a Dutch qualifier and world number 110. Williams was clearly feeling the pressure and almost in tears by the time she turned around that breaker. The weight of expectation is only going to increase for the rest of the tournament, as she edges closer to a Calendar Slam that most people are taking for granted.
It’s safe to say that Serena could use a little help with the mind games. Remembering the comic absurdity of Coco’s meltdown – and more importantly what caused it – could be just the job.
Vandeweghe paid a painful price for looking too far ahead. She admitted it. She had her mind on the next round – ironically against Serena – instead of staying in the moment to beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
She admitted it, soon after smashing her racquet so violently that ball-boys could be seen recoiling in horror.Coco explained: ‘I definitely wasn’t in the best mind-set I could have been in. I was definitely thinking ahead and looking into the future rather than looking into the present. And I’m probably most disappointed in myself about that. I wasn’t in the here and now. I was looking into the future. It’s unfortunate I was thinking that way.’
Indeed it was. At 0-5 down, Coco exploded in a rage, her mind temporarily scrambled and distorted like the strings and frame of her battered racquet. In that moment we all knew that her only US Open 2015 future was oblivion.
For Serena, on the other hand, the dream is still alive. But it is hard for her to stay in the moment too, because everyone has already assumed she will sail through the first week and conquer the second week with equal ease, thus making further sporting history.
If only it were that simple. Imagine the whole world assuming you are going to succeed in doing something. Imagine everyone telling you it’s inevitable, when actually it’s hard. Imagine the pressure when the time comes for you to deliver, as the demanding eyes of the entire world are still fixed on you.
Serena reckoned she had been doing OK coping with this monstrous expectation until she tightened against Bertens. She explained later: ‘I had been feeling really relaxed and then suddenly I felt nervous. I’ve got to get back to the place I was in before.’ It’s easier said than done and you can bet there will be more wobbles before her destiny is decided at Flushing Meadows this fortnight.
But next time the nerves attack, Serena should conjure up the image of Coco’s self-destructive meltdown and the reasons behind it. She should smile to herself and tell herself that’s what happens when you start pretending it’s already the day after tomorrow…or imagining that you are already the first Calendar Slam Queen since Steffi Graf.
Just as a high-wire act should never look down, so Serena should not look ahead in time. Not for a minute. She will only get this thing done and handle that intolerable weight of expectation by staying in the here and now. If she manages to do that, she will avoid Coco-style implosion. One game at a time, one set at a time, one match at a time.
Stay in the present, Serena, and the present will take you all the way to glory. The alternative isn’t pleasant, though many of us laughed at the time. If you feel those nerves again Serena, think of poor Coco and where thoughts of the future can lead you.
It’s too late for Vandeweghe this time, though doubtless she’ll learn from her miserable experience. But it’s not too late for Serena to use Coco’s tantrum to help herself.