Serena Williams US Open Debacle: The Foot Fault


Lack of Mental Toughness Costly

by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP – Boulder, Colorado

We assume that those who play on the world stage at the highest levels of sport have schooled themselves mentally to keep their wits about them in the toughest of situations.  Perhaps we assume wrong. Yesterday’s Semi-final in the women’s US OPEN Tennis Championships provided us with a spectacle of the highest drama.

After a poorly played first set, Serena Williams smashed her racket into the court and received a warning from US OPEN referee, Brian Early.   Frustrated by unforced errors, Williams played poorly.  She was heavily favored to win the tournament and had breezed through to the semi-finals.  Yet, in a match with re-emerging Kim Clijsters (playing her first grand slam tournament since giving birth well over a year ago) Williams was barely competitive and clearly outplayed throughout the match.

The crowning moment came when Williams was down 5-6 in the second set, struggling to hold serve.  At 15-30, on her second serve, Williams was called for a foot fault resulting in a double fault and loss of point.  The foot fault was examined from every angle imaginable, blown up on television screens in High Definition and with all the benefits of slow-motion photography….millions of eyes viewed the replay.  Virtually every commentator questioned the call.

It was then that it happened.  Williams strutted menacingly toward the the line judge, stopped behind the service line and uttered the unforgettable obscenity and threat – a clear breach of conduct.  The line judge did exactly what she was supposed to do….notify the referee of the incident.  After the display at the end of the first set, Referee Brian Early decided it was time to call game-set and-match.  Williams was eliminated and Clijsters advanced to the finals.

It should never have happened and Serena Williams will be the first to admit that.  She lost her focus early on and was never able to disengage from her anger and troubled emotions.  BrainTough she was not and although she spoke later of her mistakes caused by her penchant for passionate play – there was no excuse for such a lack of discipline at this level.  What was worse, she projected her anger directly toward a line judge – while the whole world watched.  To say it was a poor display of sportsmanship is an understatement.

A Tale of Two Styles in Mental Toughness

Clijsters, on the other hand, is known for being kind and thoughtful….and a gamer in the best sense.  She said after the match that she was really pleased with her ability to focus on one shot at a time and stay in the present moment… playing within herself and executing solidly.  Her game plan consisted of tenacious mistake-free defense and she accomplished that recording only 18 unforced errors throughout the match.  Williams, recorded well over thirty with two really costly errors that won’t even show in the stat sheet.

As a sport psychology consultant, it is a primary priority in working with an athlete – to identify those techniques, adjustment strategies, focusing drills and methods of self-talk that will serve them well when needed most.  It is key to know what to do when.  These methods are drilled and become part of any quality mental conditioning program….to be employed when needed for as long as needed.  These skills are reviewed repeatedly and require updating every time an athlete reaches a new level of competition.  The skills employed in high school sports must be updated to compete collegiately …. yet the skills are always focused on priority one….managing one’s arousal level and keeping the emotions under control as long as is necessary during the event.

Doing so enables us to bring out our best performance even when the physical game is slightly off.  We never know whether our “A” – “B” – or “C” game will show up…but we must maintain our mental focus to perform our best under the toughest of circumstance.  Mental conditioning is key and emotional control is a Core Competency to be practiced and actively employed if we’re to be successful.

The odds are Serena Williams will review this disaster and re-focus on regaining the skills that enabled her to become a champion.  She understands mental toughness, however, she needs a refresher….because this US OPEN will remain a tough pill to swallow throughout her career.

Nevertheless, we can all thank her for reminding us of the importance of maintaining grace under fire.

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