In the world of professional tennis, toys and trinkets are the customary counterbalances for a life of laser-like focus and relentless self-reliance. Here’s a player who off the court wears lots of jewelry. Shiny new cars are bought, crashed, sold. Headsets ward off intrusion. And God help you if your cell phone is not the latest version. Yes, pro tennis can sometimes seem like a sports-focused, body-centric high school located in a wealthy neighborhood.
But this spring, high school might well have given way to college – specifically, the players who attribute a deep study of psychology for their success. Elena Vesnina, winner last month at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, has struggled for years with her consistency. Of late, though, she credits the degree she earned in psychology as a major factor in turning her career around.
At the WTA’s next tournament, the Miami Open, the title was won by Johanna Konta. Like Vesnina, Konta is a late bloomer who worked very closely with Juan Coto, a man identified in the press as a “mental coach.” Sadly, Coto died last November. Still, two days after the big win in Miami, Konta cited psychological improvements as the major reason for her rise up the ranks.
Here in Charleston, at the Volvo Car Open, Laura Siegemund is the psychology degree holder who has climbed up the ranks. Like Vesnina and Konta, Siegemund also endured a long period of frustrating results and time grubbing her way through events where the tournament staff barely knew the difference between an ice bath and an ice cream. Barely 18 months ago, Siegemund’s ranking was stuck in the triple digit range. But everything took a big jump last year – starting with a quarterfinal run in Charleston -- Siegemund leaping forward to finish 2016 ranked 31 in the world.
Two thousand seventeen had started poorly, Seigemund arriving in Charleston just 1-6 for the year. After taking more than three hours to squeak past Lesia Tsurenko in a third-set tiebreaker, Siegemund met 2004 Volvo Car Open champion Venus Williams. On a cold, windy day, Siegemund prevailed in a rollercoaster. Squandering a match point of her own in the second set, she fought off two in the third to win it, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 7-5. This one too had gone more than three hours.
Well aware that playing well after a big win is not always so easy, Siegemund yesterday went up against veteran Lucie Safarova. While the wind versus Venus was blustery, against Safarova it was a gale – exponentially worse, swirling in a way painfully unpredictable. But while Safarova stumbled, her feet and racquet constantly betraying her, Siegemund just kept paying attention. Her legs constantly on the churn, Siegemund was struck big backhands, retrieved Safarova’s intermittent forehand salvos and, as she had versus Venus, adroitly mixed up speeds and spins. In just 80 minutes, Siegemund had won 62, 63.
“Having a degree certainly helps in a way, you know, to understand the mind better maybe,” said Siegemund, “but what you need out there on the court, I don't think I learned that in any of the books I read.” But later, in that same post-match press conference, Siegemund mentioned the book “The Best Tennis of Your Life,” authored by sports psychologist Jeff Greenwald. According to Greenwald, a key principle for competing well is “Finding pleasure in pressure.”
It must be noted that Siegemund’s last name and degree trigger a delightful pun: Sigmund Freud, the thinker often considered the founder of psychology. Alas, to this writer’s chagrin, Freud believed that the pun, for all its attempted cleverness, was an admission of weakness. But then again, what would Freud have made of the impressive array Siegemund has displayed this week – notably, tennis’ most delicious pun, the drop shot? So far at the Volvo Car Open, Siegemund has yet to slip.