Having just returned on Easter Sunday from a month of preparation and training with Serena Williams, I thought it would be an ideal time to talk about one of the most important elements to success in sports and life – the ability to focus. Back in early March, I along with the other members of Team Serena, began the process of helping to prepare Williams for a two-week event - the Sony Open in Key Biscayne, Fla. - where if you lose at any point along the way, you move on to the site of the next competition. Williams prevailed last Saturday over Maria Sharapova 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
As I have said many times in previous columns, pro tennis is one of the most vigorous athletic events competitors endure, not only because of the fierce competition, but also because of the diverse climate changes, surface changes (hard court, clay, grass), the potential for many complex injuries due to the game's short, quick directional changes, the travel schedule, time zone changes and so on.
Women's pro tennis, in the form of the WTA, has all the makings of a knockout, drag-out battle with each game, no matter whom you face across the court.
Leading up to the Sony Open Championship match between Serena and Sharapova, both competitors endured tough battles to reach the finals. Williams did not begin her fourth- round match until 9 p.m. due to prior games going longer than expected. By the time we finished the postmatch stretching and completed specific exercise work, I got back to my condo at midnight. Williams went on to face the media.
Yet, practice the next day was at noon, which meant that I needed to arrive with Williams' practice partner and physical therapist at 11:30 a.m. to perform pre-practice duties. And Williams departed her hotel at 11:30 am to head to the courts – very little time to recover in the scheme of a two-week event, where you practice on alternate match days and perform a pre-match on-court warm up session usually 1.5 hours before the intended match time.
On the day of Williams' quarterfinal match, her tennis partner and I headed over well in advance of match time, only to find that along the route, a car had flipped over down the road, causing a massive backup in traffic on the only road to the event.
We parked our car in a shopping center about a half-mile away from the stadium and started to walk/run with bags on our backs to get there on time for the pre-match warm-up session. Here is where the intent and focus part comes in.
The unexpected happened that no one could have planned for – how was Serena (much less her opponent) going to get to her own match with traffic now backed up all the way to her hotel?
We alerted Williams of the trouble ahead, and she and one of her tennis coaches used two bicycles from her hotel and started peddling to the courts miles out. When she got close enough, I ran over to the players entrance to watch our champion peddle in.
I took the picture with my iphone that she ended up tweeting to her fans of just what it took to not only make it to the match on time, but also to be able to endure the long bike ride then play a tough match and win. And she did it all.
Focus was the major player in the match between Williams – the No. 1 seed - and Sharapova, the No. 3 seed. Both athletes had to be on the stadium court for 11:50 a.m. for pre-match introductions on CBS, which determined that I, along with my counterpart in Sharapova's camp, would begin our respective warm-ups at 11:25 a.m. in the same area called the "fitness room" – about the size of a large living room.
Here is the take-away message for what I am about to describe. Focus and intent, when two competitors are close in abilities, can be the deciding factors to ultimate success - barring injuries.
Sharapova was on top of her game early, using her own "self talk" between points and games. After she won a point, she would turn away from Serena and clench her fist and voice a loud " YES." She won the first set 6-4
During the break between sets, Serena sat quietly on her chair awaiting the call to action for the second set, which began as the first set with Williams down three games. But everything changed during the next change-over. I could see the transformation process of the focus and intent, which Williams had brought about for herself.
When time was called, Serena got up quickly with her racket held firmly in her right hand and walked to the service line. From that point forward, Sharapova lost 10 straight games over the next two sets (6-3, 6-0) and the match, because Williams refocused her mind and her performance. Williams' shot placement, returns, and her 100-mph plus serves were unmatched by her opponent.
Sharapova's "self talk" quickly turned to "self doubt." It was palpable from where I sat in the player's box.
Two great competitors, who saw their respective games change before their eyes, all based on Williams' uncanny ability when down to be able to use unparalleled focus and intent to transform the caliber of her game into a championship level of play.
Here is how The Associated Press reported the action. "Sharapova playing nearly flawless tennis for an hour, before her serve and groundstrokes began to lose steam. Williams swept the last 10 games......"
Over my last five years with Serena, I can count the number of times I have witnessed her incredible ability to refocus her talents to pull victory from what appeared to be a path of defeat, such as she did in last year's U.S. Open.
After the victory, Williams was gracious in her acceptable speech, heaping praise on her opponent's talents and abilities and down playing her victory.
Back in the fitness room for the cool down, I told Serena, "I am getting a little too old for these kind of matches, despite the ratings for CBS."
The take-away message for young, aspiring female tennis players is to learn to develop that ability to translate "focus" into game winners.
Many athletes, who hope to advance to the pro level, just seem happy to be training or competing, as opposed to having that burning passion to be the best. You must train like you play and play like you train.
So, if your training is mediocre at best, then that's how you will compete. It is the difference between contribution and commitment. Here is how I look at it in this analogy.
The hog and the chicken both agreed to give something for breakfast. The chicken said, "I will contribute an egg. The hog said, I will make a commitment of the bacon."
While you need not die in the process, it goes without saying that commitment beats contribution every time - just like my friend Serena Williams does on a regular basis.
On May 10, a documentary profiling the Williams sisters (Serena and Venus) will be in theaters across the country, as well, as available on Itunes.
This film will follow the Williams' throughout the 2011 tennis season (of which I was part of ) and have footage of their early childhood experiences growing up to become the great champions they are today.
I will have my popcorn ready.