Thursday, January 18, 2018

Call it what it is--the norm

Every time a major rolls around, the dialogue surrounding its early days is similar: "Seeds out early!," "Top seeds shocked!," "Early round upsets!" Well, it's no longer a shock--it's just the way things are. Why? My best guess is that the majors are much bigger deals than they used to be (they were always important, but now they've become measuring sticks for all kinds of ridiculous stats), and the pressure on top players is greater than it was several years ago.

There are other factors. The physical intensity of the game has created more injuries, making top players vulnerable, sometimes before they even step onto the court. Also, there's a devil-may-care attitude among many of the younger (or even veteran) players. These players tend to go all-out at majors, knowing they can go out early, but also knowing they can pull off upsets. Yesterday's upset of Garbine Muguruza combined both theories: The 3rd seed has been quite physically fragile lately, and her opponent, Hsieh Su-wei, brought her best game.

One could say that the ultimate manifestation of this shift was Alona Ostapenko's French Open victory. Ostapenko was not only unseeded--she had never won a WTA tournament. A lot of factors went into Ostapenko's breakthrough, but one of the major ones was the Latvian player's attitude. It was though she was wearing Melanie Oudin's Believe shoes while also sporting a serial amnesia approach to each match. It worked.

What can be done to stop so many early upsets (and is it really that bad that we have them?)? Many have called for shortening the season even more in order to decrease injury.

 I wonder whether a strong emphasis on mental strength is part of the answer. Players who have worked with sports psychologists have usually seen significant benefits. Unfortunately, there are still players (Aga Radwanska, CoCo Vandeweghe) who disdain the idea of working with a sports psychologist. An increase in mind-body activities such as yoga and tai chi would also be helpful. Playing sports does make a person (especially a woman) psychologically stronger, but sometimes a psychological boost is needed to improve sports performance.

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