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Serena Williams balances mental and physical toughness
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It may not be remembered as the greatest victory of her career, but a third-round win over local British favorite, Heather Watson, in 2015 at Wimbledon gave a glimpse into what it takes for Serena Williams to stay at the top of the tennis game for so long.
Tied at a set apiece, Williams quickly fell behind Watson 0-3 in the decisive third. She rallied back to 3-3, only to trail 4-5 and facing an elimination game. Williams once again dug deep and made critical shots to thwart the underdog challenger, 7-5, in the third set. She went on to win Wimbledon that year—her sixth title at the famed tennis club.
The odds were stacked against Williams that day. The hostile British crowd spent the entire match trying to rattle her. Williams had already won 20 Grand Slam titles, so a loss wasn't going to tarnish her legacy. Plus, Williams was giving up a full decade of physical wear and tear to the 23-year-old Watson.
But it's her experience and mental toughness of never relenting that's earned Williams a reputation as one of the best athletes of all time.
"I think this is a match I would have lost last year or the year before," Williams told reporters in that post-match press conference. "The older I get … the tougher I get upstairs … maybe this time next year I'll be even stronger."
Balance brings focus
Next year, Williams may have even more happening in her life, which makes her laser-focus on the court even more incredible. As everyone matures, responsibilities increase. The people who never thought they had free time in their younger years now have families, careers, financial decisions, long-term planning, wellness goals and so much more on their plates as they age.
It's the same for Williams. She won her first Grand Slam title at 17 when she ate, slept and breathed nothing but tennis. Now she balances tennis with endorsement deals, designing clothing lines, charity work, writing, even painting. In her Epix Original Documentary, "Serena," which Chase sponsored, she mentioned taking up painting as a relaxation tool about five years ago.
On the flip side, to generate focus and intensity just prior to a match, Williams is routinely seen wearing giant headphones. What's playing to get her into the zone? "Well, if you really want to know, it's '80s music," Williams said after the "Serena" documentary premier.
While contrarians may claim outside interests can pull focus, Williams sees it having the opposite effect, and her career path proves it. She's won nine of her 22 Grand Slam titles after turning 30 years old. She's been the world's No. 1 ranked player for 181 weeks and counting (as of this writing).
"It's actually really easy for me because though I have a lot of stuff going on, I know that my primary goal right now is to do well," she said at the premiere of "Serena." “I train a lot; even if I'm traveling, there's opportunities to do gym work."
Pushing herself, staying positive
In an individual game such as tennis, there are no teammates relying upon you. There is no one forcing you to put in that gym work while on the road, get up early and hit balls or break down film of an upcoming opponent. Success comes from one's very personal inner drive and fortitude.
"As an athlete, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. Every day—even if I want to hang out with my friends—I think, 'Oh, I have to go to practice at eight in the morning'—that's still every day of my life," Williams said in a press conference following her Wimbledon championship this year. "Those sacrifices you put in every single day eventually pay off."
Despite all the accolades, victories and awards, Williams still suffers setbacks. She started 2016 with losses in the finals of the Australian Open and French Open. For any other player, a Grand Slam final is a major accomplishment. Williams isn't any other player. Those losses stuck with her; she mentally had to work through them.
"I had to start looking at the positives, not focusing on that one loss per tournament, which really isn't bad, and that anyone else on this tour would be completely happy about it," Williams said in her press conference following her Wimbledon championship earlier this year. "Once I started focusing more on the positives, I realized that I'm pretty good."
It's having the proper mindset of overcoming those obstacles, focusing on resiliency and not allowing negative thoughts to overwhelm her that has enabled Williams to maintain a high level of success through two decades of professional tennis.
Maybe it's just that simple—focus on what's in your control. Stay positive. Work harder than anyone else. Find your balance. Then, watch your plan—be it athletic, professional or financial—stay consistently strong like Serena Williams, year after year.
Michael Austin runs Basketball Coach Weekly while also serving as a contributing editor for This Is AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) magazine.