What does it take to win tennis matches at the highest level? Sure there is the training and the talent and the equipment; all vitally important but one more aspect makes a player and indeed makes for a life lesson;...
What does it take to win tennis matches at the highest level? Sure there is the training and the talent and the equipment; all vitally important but one more aspect makes a player and indeed makes for a life lesson; mental strength. Everyone at this level of the sport is good, even great, but the toughness of mind can often be a distinguishing factor. At this year’s Roland Garros two players, not among the highest ranked ones, showed amazing mental strength. They showed how their minds were able to bring them back to the fold from adversity and become the stories of the first week of the French Open, if not the whole tournament. I am talking about the American Brian Baker and the French player Virginie Razzano. Nine years ago as a junior Baker was a finalist in the boy’s event at Roland Garros, losing to Stanislas Wawrinka. He started playing on the tour but then the injuries took a debilitating toll. He could have been auditioning for a recurring role on E.R. or Grey’s Anatomy, there were so many problems. Between November 2005 and July 2011 he had five surgeries – left hip surgery in November 2005; a sports hernia surgery in 2006; and left hip, right hip and right elbow surgery in 2008. He took three years to fully recover from the elbow surgery and returned unranked in July 2011, winning a Futures event in Pittsburgh. He took a job as an assistant coach at a college but never gave up hope of trying to make a return. There was dream in his mind and with the help of his family, he began to realise things. However, to be able to make the return his mental strength was of prime importance and that’s what he’s shown an abundance of. “I never really had that one moment where I thought about throwing in the towel, but you have to be realistic when you have that many surgeries that maybe tennis isn’t in the cards anymore and that you’ve got to see what else is out there outside of tennis,” Baker said. His mental strength never allowed him to say “I’m done”. It was close but never all the way. Qualifying and reaching the final in Nice and then getting into the French Open main draw and winning a match proved himself right. He says he has spent much of his life thinking of what tennis means to him. “I am definitely a very competitive person and love the sport of tennis,” he said. “It wasn’t easy to have it taken away from me the way it was. I’ve gone over what’s worse, playing and not being good enough or playing and getting hurt and not knowing if you were good enough. “That’s why I think it’s been so much more special this time around, just from what I’ve gone through and knowing that how easy it can be taken away from you. I think I appreciate it a lot more this time.” Virginia Razzano didn’t have to come back from injury but she had to come back from heartbreak and often that can be even tougher. Her coach and fiancé Stephane Vidal passed away from a brain tumour on the eve of the 2011 French Open but in his last days he told her to play at Roland Garros. A year later she played the match of her life to upset Serena Williams and handed the legendary American her first ever first round loss at a Grand Slam. What Razzano’s mental strength overcame was quite amazing. “What I felt after the match was great relief,” Razzano said. “I work a lot on my tennis (but) life is not only the work you do. Sometimes the worst can become the better. Even if you have problems in your private life or professional problems, if you work hard, it ends up paying off. Sometimes you have bad times and sometimes you have good times. “Honestly, the past is the past. I think now I did my mourning. It took time. I got help to make progress and I was helped starting something new. I was ready to go ahead and live my life professionally and personally. “You can always push a bit further the limits if you keep believing. It’s not easy but when you are determined you use every means you have to make it.” What Baker and Razzano showed was mental strength and with your mind in focus pretty much everything is possible. They provided a lesson to all. Maybe they won’t achieve anything as amazing again but they displayed the head and the heart is two very powerful entities. This was not just about tennis; this was a lesson in life and one for all of us. What do you think?