Mind games at the US Open Women’s Finals

Twenty years ago, when Daria Abramowicz was a young competitive sailor in Poland, she felt something was missing from her education. When all was right – when she was feeling lighthearted – she could read the gusts and lulls of the wind, adapt to the swells and swells, and use her strength to guide her boat through changeable weather. But under stress, her body would tense up and her mind would falter. She had no tools to deal with her own emotions. She knew and “wanted to do something about it,” but her coach couldn’t help her, she told Ben Rothenberg for a profile bat Magazine. Then, when she was eighteen, she shattered her wrist in a fall and switched from sailing to coaching and then psychology. She has become increasingly convinced that there is a connection between performance and mental health and that many athletes, like herself, have urgent and unmet needs.

In February 2019, she received a call regarding a young Polish tennis prodigy, Iga Świątek, who had harrowing groundstrokes and unusual mobility but a sometimes shaky psyche. Abramowicz went to Budapest and watched her play. Świątek was only a teenager, but she had great self-confidence and understood that Abramowicz could help her. Abramowicz soon flew to tournaments with her. They ate lunch every day and chatted not only about tennis but about the rest of life. Abramowicz became a constant presence at Świątek’s training sessions and games. She was there in the players’ box in 2020 when Świątek romped through the French Open title draw as an unseeded player, and there at Olympia 2021 when Świątek was on the bench in tears after a defeat. She was there earlier this spring when Świątek inherited the No. 1 ranking following Ashleigh Barty’s retirement, then cemented it with a thirty-seven-game winning streak, including a second Grand Slam title. And she was there when the series ground to a halt this summer and Świątek began struggling, losing early at Wimbledon, Toronto and Cincinnati. After all, the mind cannot be fixed like the technique of a forehand. Pressure doesn’t go away. Stress can only be managed.

Then came the start of the US Open. Świątek didn’t like the balls used by the women – lighter than the men’s, they tended to fly on her. She also seemed a little used to the bright lights of New York and the city’s irrepressible energy. But the pressure on the No. 1 was of course eased by the tournament’s dominant storyline: the swan song of Serena Williams. Świątek, who never got a chance to play Williams, finally found the courage to say hello and snap a selfie. She somehow got through the first laps without doing her best – a fact that actually gave her courage. She “logically” focused on what she could change, she said, and adjusted her game accordingly. She did tennis riddles during transitions to help focus. Off the pitch, she read Brene Braun and Ian McEwan, trying not to let her emotions get the better of her and managing her expectations. She wasn’t as comfortable on hard courts as she was on clay, she admitted, but was philosophical about her discomfort. “Maybe I’m the kind of person who will never trust himself. I don’t really care,” she said. “It’s not like it’s something negative for me. Of course it’s not nice to have doubts, but I also find it quite motivating to actually try to get better and find new skills to get as close to confidence as possible.” After all, some of their best games started in the semi-finals to show up against Aryna Sabalenka. Their second leg – perhaps the best of the tour – saw them exert pressure even against a strong player like Sabalenka. She backhanded on the run, slipped and flung the ball out of corners, and redirected Sabalenka’s powerful shots with precision. After splitting the first two sets, she ran away with the third.

At the beginning of the final against Ons Jabeur, Świątek kept their high level. In the first set she made ninety percent of her first serves – and was somehow even more successful with her returns. Jabeur managed to throw in about half of her first serves, winning the point after just two serves. Świątek played the aggressor, hitting a deep ball that Jabeur, arguably the sport’s most creative and brilliant player – a genius not only for her touch and cut, but also for her cunning – could do little. Świątek won the first set 6-2 in just 30 minutes and went 3-0 in the second.

But then the weather seemed to change. The crowd, perhaps hoping for a more competitive match, began loudly promoting Jabeur. There were whistles against the tennis code when Świątek tried to serve. Jabeur, who looked overwhelmed early in the game, seemed to ground herself. Your first service percentage went up. Świątek fell. Jabeur’s forehand became more aggressive as Świąteks started to break down. Jabeur broke back, leveling the set and pushing it to a tiebreak.

Jabeur is known as a fighter. She had by far the best year on tour after Świątek. After the match, win or lose, she should become world No. 2. In July she had reached the Wimbledon final. The pressure was overwhelming then, but now she’s more stable, she said ahead of the game. Like Świątek, she had had a difficult hard court season after Wimbledon but came into the match after a top performance and dominated Caroline Garcia, the summer’s hottest player, in the semifinals. She thought she could win the title, or at least she said so. “You know me,” she said. “I have to say things out loud and manifest them my way.”

Like Świątek, she began working with a sports psychologist who sometimes traveled with her. Like Świątek, for all her physical talent and strategic skills, she spoke about the game as if it were primarily a mental challenge. But the pressure on Jabeur was different. She is a pioneer and proud of it – the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final. Growing up in a small town in Tunisia, she had difficulty finding a place to practice, often resorting to tourist spots in hotels. Sometimes she would go to the beach and draw a dish in the sand. She had become known as a player with gifted hands and good power, but had struggled with injuries and only made it into the top ten in recent years. She had begun to use her unusual play to disrupt her opponents’ rhythm and prevail. As she succeeded, she said, her sense of responsibility grew.

Now when she practiced in Tunisia, young girls would come to watch. She inspired them. After that they came to talk to her. “Usually they want to [know] how I deal with stress on the pitch,” she said at a press conference after the third round, sounding not dissimilar to the opponent she would face in the final. “That’s usually the question. My advice is: you have to accept it. You’re going to be stressed anyway. Part of the process is accepting that you are stressed. Try to breathe, take each point in turn. It’s okay to cry because they usually cry. It’s okay, you know.”

You could feel the stress in both players as the second set went into a tiebreak – Jabeur trailed, Świątek held on. The unforced errors piled up – Świątek had twenty-two in the second set after just eight in the first, while Jabeur had twenty-five. At 5-5 in the tiebreak, Jabeur netted a loose rally backhand to lose the championship point. Świątek threw a shot and then dropped it. She hit a first serve so long that he barely made it to the baseline. She twirled her second and eventually fell to the ground as Jabeur sailed for a forehand. During the trophy ceremony that followed, Jabeur fought back tears.

The focus of the tournament was the development of Serena Williams, as she put it an essay inside Fashion, away from sports. But this US Open was yet another reminder that the sport is evolving too – and not just because of the physicality, creativity and agility that it takes to be a top player today. A new generation of young players are more open to the mental difficulties of the game than Williams ever was. Maybe her mental state is different, or maybe, at least early in her career, she was never allowed to. Players like Świątek, Jabeur, Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka and others have spoken openly about the pressure – how it feels, but what they can do about it, and with it too. ♦

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