If you were in love with tennis like I was as a young girl, you grew up watching Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, and Venus and Serena. You studied their game and idolized them.
But how do you get ready to play your childhood idol?
The real answer is, you don’t. You just get really edgy right before it happens. Or at least that’s how it went for me when I first faced Venus Williams. I was 17 years old, facing a former No. 1 and one of the all-time best.
The first time I played Venus it was in a tournament in Charleston two years ago. I walked onto the clay and saw her warming up and I was trying to play it cool. And it just hit me. This is kind of a big deal. I should probably have mentally prepared for this.
The most exciting thing about tennis — and maybe the scariest — is the opportunity to play the people you watched on TV as a little girl. How did I even get here?
The match was an emotional roller coaster. I was a little rattled. I got off to a really slow start — partly because I was so nervous and partly because Venus was attacking my serve a lot and just hitting unbelievable returns. Midway through the match I settled down and focused on playing my game, but by then it was too late. She won in straight sets.
The most exciting thing about tennis — and maybe the scariest — is the opportunity to play the people you watched on TV as a little girl.
Walking off the court, something surreal happened. You’d think I would’ve been frustrated, but it was a different feeling — I felt encouraged. I think it was the first time I felt I really belonged at the elite level of pro tennis. I made it. I’m there. I walked off the court thinking, She beat me but she’s one of the best tennis players ever. I realized I had to treat every match the same and not really worry about who’s on the other side of the net. It made me want to get better — and get better at the psychological side of tennis — so the next time I played someone like Venus I didn’t have to get over that emotional hurdle.
I call it “the reset.” It was a lesson in knowing how to reset my mental game in order to stabilize my tennis game.
I didn’t learn that lesson on my own. I have Lindsay Davenport to thank. The biggest turning point in my tennis career has been having Lindsay as a coach. For the past seven months, I’ve been incredibly fortunate and grateful that Lindsay wanted to add me to her insane schedule (which includes tennis commentating, being a mother of four, coaching, and more). When a former No. 1 is giving you her time on the tennis court, you give back all your attention.
Lindsay’s technical understanding of the game is really good. She knows strengths and weaknesses like no one I’ve ever seen: she can watch tape on someone, or watch me hit for a few minutes, and pick apart what’s going right and wrong. With me, right away she noticed that my backhand crosscourt shot needed improvement. After working together for a few months, she identified another area of improvement: moving forward better to the net. I pride myself in my serve, but Lindsay helped me move to the net faster on returns. A typical training session would be Jon, her husband (and also a former tennis pro), hitting to me while Lindsay stands behind me, talking in my ear and analyzing my game. It’s amazing have something who 100 percent gets what you’re going through and who wants you to succeed.
By far the biggest thing Lindsay has helped me with is managing the mental element of the game. That’s where “the reset” mentality comes into play. Tennis is a game of momentum — and momentum has a lot to do with bouncing back from a bad play. If you have the momentum, you’re trying to keep it, and if you don’t have it, you’re struggling to get it back. One minute you’re fine, then the next moment you have three bad errors and you’re spiraling.
The biggest turning point in my tennis career has been having Lindsay as a coach.
Lindsay and I have worked day in and day out on being more resilient, especially after a string of unforced mistakes. At this year’s Australian Open in January, I was spiraling against Casey Dellacqua in the second round. I lost the first set badly and my game was just off. It felt like I was going to lose. No one talks about how tough of a mental game tennis is. The old me, before Lindsay came into my life, might have fallen apart. But I stayed with it. Lindsay believed that I could come back in that match and that helped me believe in myself.
Next up was the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. It was the farthest I’d ever been in a Grand Slam. Guess who was across the net? Venus Williams. The player I’d idolized as a 6-year-old. A re-match of Charleston.
Lindsay encouraged me to stay loose before the match. She mapped out the strategy: Venus hits really hard and deep and she moves forward really well, so it’s crucial to get ahead in the point so you can stay on offense.
I’m not going to say I wasn’t nervous playing Venus for the second time ever, but I was better at managing my nerves than in Charleston. The match had a totally different feel. I wasn’t getting pushed back as much and I was moving forward better than I had even a year earlier. It was one of those days when everything clicked. Even though I made some errors, I was able to bounce back each time. I was able to reset.
When I beat Venus, it took a little time to process.
When I beat Venus, it took a little time to process. Oh my God, I did it.
The moment it really hit me was when Lindsay ran to the court to congratulate me. “I’m so proud of how you handled that.” I think she was talking about the mental stuff more than the final score.
Then she hugged me and turned around to run back up to the tennis channel booth. “I have to go call a match now.”
Lindsay’s a busy woman these days. I’m humbled she sees something in me, and I want to keep proving her right.
Photographs by Getty Images