Sporting Life

Interruption to normal service when serving for a match

Her spare, elongated 1.86m frame folds into a chair in Beijing and Karolina Pliskova smiles ruefully about a subject that's amusing only when you're not playing. I haven't even finished my long-winded question about the difficulty of serving out a match with a crowd expecting, a trophy waiting, heart rate rising and she says:

"It is."

And that's even though Pliskova is a lofty talent, having cuffed over 420 aces this year, who says: "If I serve for the match I believe 90 per cent or 95 per cent I am going to do it. Even if I get tight with my shots I still have the serve and I can serve well... I feel I have it always in my hand, so it depends more about me. Obviously sometimes I feel tight... you're playing for so much at that moment. It's just not easy."

"So much" could be a WTA Finals title in two weeks and it's enough to make the sternest talent fidget. But it's not just a big title that tightens nerves, it could just be a third-round match, for as Anabel Medina Garrigues, former player and Jelena Ostapenko's coach, says: "You feel that you need to win that match too much because you need the (ranking) points... you need to win and you're thinking too much. That is the worst situation you can have."

Every athlete, amateur or pro, knows the feeling of "tight", whereupon the arm stiffens, tension tugs, doubt visits and the head is occupied by voices. And as Pliskova says, you can start waiting "for the mistake of the opponent" instead of being aggressive. And this isn't just in sport because pressure chokes creativity in various fields: great writers suddenly cannot scratch out a word - the author Ralph Ellison wrote of a "writer's block as big as the Ritz" - and singers can't find a note. It is genius paralysed.

But at least writers can sip from a large Scotch and calm themselves. Athletes cannot, for the lights are on, the crowd is waiting and there's a six-foot putt to be holed, a penalty to be scored and a match to be served out. It is this very agony that makes sport delightful.

In his book Leading, Alex Ferguson writes that Wes Brown "would have rather played barefoot than take a penalty", but tennis players have no one to lean on, have no choice between fight or flight. And if you're vertically not over-blessed, and your serve defies any description but amiable, you're going to sweat. Doesn't matter if you've done this thousands of times and have a minor degree in closing matches, it's still hard.

Even though Karolina Pliskova gives herself a 90 per cent to 95 per cent chance of winning if she is serving for the match, she still finds it tough. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ostapenko, whose exquisitely timed tennis violence will be on exhibition in Singapore, is wearing a calm half-smile in Beijing, but nine months ago in Australia she was in tears. Twice in her third-round contest with Pliskova at the Open, at 5-2 and 5-4, she served for the match but couldn't convert.

"I got very tight ... but I got experience from that," she says, "and the next time I was calm and serving better". Indeed, at the next Slam, the French, she was champion.

At least writers can sip from a large Scotch and calm themselves. Athletes cannot, for the lights are on, the crowd is waiting and there's a six-foot putt to be holed, a penalty to be scored and a match to be served out. It is this very agony that makes sport delightful.

Everyone theoretically knows what to do to in that last game: Follow routine. Point by point. Focus on the process. Don't think of the press conference. As Garrigues says: "It's very important at the beginning of every serve to be calm and think where you (want to serve). Even if you don't have a strong serve, if you can play with the first serve it's very important."

Superb, solid advice except the player's heart has gone on a gallop because they are so close to victory.

Four points. Only.

Simona Halep, honest, unflinching, who knows the turbulence of tennis, says "there are many emotions when you have to finish a match. If it's a really important one your emotions are pretty strong and you can feel the pressure more... So definitely it's something special and if you can get stronger there, if you can just stay focused and take that point like a normal point you can make it easy".

On their best days, professional athletes can turn a pivotal point into any other point. On their worst days, their head is a coffee shop of conversations. "You have so many thoughts in those 20 seconds (between points)," says Pliskova. Adds Halep: "Sometimes you think too much about that point, that it's important and you can finish the match and you will achieve something with that point. So if you don't think that much, it's better."

So many things come into play. Not just the stature of the match but the size of a rival. As Ostapenko explains: "Sometimes you feel that when you play against big servers you have more pressure because you know they are going to keep their serve." Sometimes you're too passive, sometimes it's a breeze, sometimes, says Ashleigh Barty, "you can do nothing wrong and still get broken".

Eventually, like almost everything in sport, toughness separates players at the finish. "Now in the tour all players play good," said Garrigues. "The only difference is mentally. (There are) players who play good but sometimes they don't believe too much in themselves". In important moments they stumble, but top players, she clarifies, mostly don't. And that includes Ostapenko.

In Singapore, on Oct 29, a player might require one last service hold to win US$2.36 million (S$3.22 million) and 1,500 points and hoist a trophy whose shine is only less than the four Slams. She might rise from her chair before the umpire says "time" and she might even talk to herself like Pliskova. "I always try to say there are worse things than just to play a tennis match," she said with a laugh.

"But sometimes it's not really helping."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Interruption to normal service when serving for a match'. Print Edition | Subscribe