Wow. I guess I belong here.
That was my first thought after I beat the No. 1–ranked tennis player in the world — Caroline Wozniacki — in straight sets in the second round at the 2011 Western & Southern Open.
If I’m honest, I went into that match not expecting much. Wozniacki was the No. 1 player in the world for a reason, and there I was, a wide-eyed 19-year-old who hadn’t yet proven herself.
The confidence that match gave me has proven invaluable for my growth as a professional. And what I’ve learned over the course of my career is that whether you’re ranked No. 1 or not at all, every opponent is tough.
Every. Single. One.
Legendary players, however — the ones I consider my toughest opponents — have one characteristic in common: an elite blend of physical and mental resilience.
I remember reading somewhere that a tennis player has to make at least 200–300 half-second decisions in a 6–4 set. You have to factor your opponent’s skill, the kind of ball you’re receiving, your opponent’s position on the court and the type of surface you’re playing on (just to name a few).
Great players can analyze a situation, remain calm and execute on an extremely consistent basis — especially in crunch time. The only way you can beat opponents of that caliber is to do your best to stay in the moment, and to quickly figure out how you’re going to play the next point. Believe me — they don’t give you much time to think.
Here are the top five toughest opponents I’ve ever faced.
Agnieszka Radwańska: The Magician
No other player anticipates every play as well as Radwańska does.
She doesn’t have formidable power, but she doesn’t need it because she seems to read each play to perfection. You might think you’re in control of a point, but she’s already one step ahead of you and knows exactly where you’re going to hit the ball.
Some of the angles she uses are baffling, which makes her lobs even more effective.
She’s a magician.
I remember coming off the court after losing in straight sets to her in the 2016 Australian Open. I lost the first set 6–2. To make matters worse, I didn’t even think I was playing that poorly — but she read every shot perfectly.
During some of our long rallies, I would think I was in control of a point only to see her run over to her forehand/backhand and hit a lob over my head. It was frustrating, but amazing at the same time.
Well, in hindsight.
Kim Clijsters: The Athlete
The court seemed so small when I played against Kim Clijsters.
What made her so great was her unrivaled athleticism. She was consistent across every kind of court, too, which is rare.
You’d see her do the splits just to reach a ball, and then get right back up to prepare for its return. She was one of the best players of all time at turning defense to offense.
She had a lot of power, but she coupled that with versatility. She could hit angles so well, but she could also hit the ball heavy and clean. You were forced to chase so many balls down because she moved so well and seemed to hit everything back.
To combat her athleticism, I relied on my heavy forehand to keep her on the defensive. My goal — at least in theory — was to avoid letting her dictate points.
Sometimes it worked. Other times …
Maria Sharapova: The Warrior
When you play against Maria Sharapova, you can never tell what the score is. Whether it’s the first point in the match or 5–5 in the third set, she maintains the same exact facial expression.
I’ve played against her quite a few times. No lead is ever safe, and she’s never going to give up.
Trust me — I know from experience.
In the second round of the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open, I was up 4–1 against Sharapova in the final set.
I was rolling. I felt like I was in a nice groove. Things seemed to be clicking and each point was mine as long as I remained assertive.
But I’d look at her, and the expression on her face never changed. No panic. No fear.
In the blink of an eye, she won five straight games to beat me 6–4.
Oh, and she won the entire tournament.
Venus Williams: The Powerhouse
My sister (who also plays tennis) and I grew up idolizing the Williams sisters.
We’d watch their matches and would try to emulate their power and ferocity in our own matches.
Venus is constantly looking to put you on the defensive. She’s not afraid to come to the net. She loves it, actually. Her physicality and wide wingspan makes it incredibly hard to pass her.
Anything short and she’s hitting it right back at you.
Venus makes you feel like you have no time to decide what to do. And you don’t. The only thing you can do to counter her game is try to outwork her from an athletic and/or physical standpoint.
Good luck with that.
Serena Williams: The G.O.A.T.
I really hope I don’t get killed.
There’s probably a better mentality to deploy for a match against the greatest female tennis player of all time, but that’s what I was thinking.
She was my idol. She is my idol. I’ve only played her twice, but each time has felt like I was facing an icon.
Everything you’ve heard about her unrivaled talent is accurate. If there were ever a perfectly constructed tennis player, Serena Williams is that player.
She’s powerful but precise. Intense but smooth. Competing against someone who has no weaknesses is overwhelming.
You don’t truly appreciate her greatness until you’ve played against her. She certainly looks phenomenal from the stands or on television, but it’s different when you’re on the court in a break point, and you’re fully aware that she’s saved her best serve for this exact moment.
For Serena, being clutch is like breathing — it just happens instinctively.
I don’t know if there has ever been a player who seems to come through every single time in the most pressure-packed situations. We all have the intention of hitting the shots she does in crunch time, but no one executes like her.
All I wanted when I played the G.O.A.T was to hang in through a third set. She never gave me that opportunity.
But I did get the opportunity to go up against greatness.
Christina McHale plays for New York Empire, one of six teams in the Mylan World TeamTennis League, co-founded by Billie Jean King. The season starts on Sunday, July 31.