July 7, 2015
Why do the warriors win through? They can play below their best, seem to be going through some kind of personal crisis, and then, just when all seems lost, they summon that steely streak, draw on their natural refusal to be beaten, win the psychological battle and then the match itself.
Serena Williams looked in severe trouble against Victoria Azarenka. She was being overpowered, faced down, even bullied. The Belarusian looked fearless, capable of causing an upset.
The American’s face seemed contorted by despair, as though the terrible burden of her bid for a Calendar Slam had finally proved too much and she was ready to crumble.
But then Serena searched deep inside herself for that unbeatable warrior, she brought out the true fighter in her character, and she suddenly raised her game. The result? A three-set win, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.
The final two sets almost sound easy, yet they were bruising affairs, when Azarenka’s own fighting spirit had to be subdued. Williams kept the pressure on, she showed no mercy until her opponent had been put to the sword.
The big names can do this; and three of them followed the same pattern until at last they had prevailed.
Novak Djokovic hinted at what he had been through after his victory over Kevin Anderson, 6-7 (6-8), 6-7 (6-8), 6-1, 6-4, 7-5, in two days.
The Serb said, ‘This was one of the most difficult matches I have played at Wimbledon in my career. At times I was helpless with my return. His serve was very difficult to read and he was very aggressive.’
But you just knew he would do it. Even when he was two sets down, you knew he would come back out with all guns blazing and take the third. Perhaps there was more doubt about the fourth, but once Novak has the momentum it is hard to stop him.
They were interrupted for bad light, resumed the next day, and the big South African found some more huge serves. But Djokovic dug deep yet again to find what he knew it would take to progress. When it mattered, he was tougher than the taller man.
Maria Sharapova faced her own ordeal against Coco Vandeweghe but came through 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 6-2.
Coco seemed to have all the confidence at the end of that second set, but Maria took a natural break, closed her eyes and hit back with a vengeance.
She wasn’t short of motivation after Vandeweghe had criticised her for moving as she received serve. But let’s face it, Sharapova would have won anyway.
She almost makes a habit of comebacks and victories in three sets. The only player she can’t seem to do it against is her nemesis, Serena Williams, who happens to be her semi-final opponent.
But Tuesday was the day to admire what Novak, Serena and Maria can do. And that is to demonstrate the most extraordinary mental strength to go with their skill.
Many have the athletic ability and the range of shots to be winners. Few have what it takes to get mean and win ugly, just when they appear to be at their most vulnerable. That takes a rare psychological make-up, a relentless kind of ruthlessness, which ultimately leaves the opponent no way out.
You can’t manufacture it. This quality has to be there from childhood. It can perhaps lie dormant as the player develops and matures, but it is there all the same. It is always summoned in a crisis, like a beast awakened. It is the stuff of champions.