Holding Court

Staying positive key to handling pressure

In the lead-up to the Oct 22-29 WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, the eight singles players from last year's edition will pen columns exclusively for The Straits Times. The monthly series begins with reigning champion Dominika Cibulkova.

The best thing about winning the WTA Finals? You get to finish off your season with one of the biggest titles in the sport.

The worst thing? Your season is over.

The WTA Finals was the biggest title of my career and I finished the season with my best year-end result so far, ranked in the top five. My confidence was sky high after lifting the beautiful trophy! I could have played five more tournaments after that - that's how excited I was.

So I don't know if it was good or bad that it was the last tournament of the year for me. On the one hand, it was good that I got a break. There were so many emotions and it was not easy to understand what happened that week, or how to deal with my emotions after the tournament.

On the other hand, it's a shame I didn't get to use all of that confidence and energy right away. After a three-week break, I got back to work, practised for seven weeks, and started again. I tried to keep that confidence from Singapore with me but you cannot lie to yourself: It's a new year, a different story.

I felt flat in Australia. I had never been in this situation before - of being a favourite, a top-five player. It was a little hard with all the pressure and all the media attention. I think that was why there were negative thoughts in my head. I wasn't really enjoying my time on the court, compared to last year when I was just enjoying everything.

Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova signing autographs at the Australian Open. The 27-year-old lost in the third round at Melbourne Park and is learning how to deal with the pressure of being the world No. 5.
Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova signing autographs at the Australian Open. The 27-year-old lost in the third round at Melbourne Park and is learning how to deal with the pressure of being the world No. 5. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

People think you just have to learn how to deal with pressure and expectations on court, but that's wrong. You have to change your mind, in how you think about the whole day, not just matches.

I had ankle surgery in 2015 and missed nearly five months on Tour. When last season started, my ranking was quite low. No one was paying attention to me and I played with no pressure. I wanted to go out there and play my tennis, and if I lost, nothing happened. I was relaxed and the results began to come. I didn't expect it at all.

This season, I felt like I had something to lose.

I didn't feel that good on the court. Of course, you can't feel happy all the time on the court, but if you handle the situation the right way - you're positive and you know that it's not the end of the world for you - then it's okay. This is what I'm trying to work on right now.

Dealing with pressure and nerves has always been a challenge for me throughout my career. I'm an intense player, a fighter, and I'm always pumped with energy, but sometimes I want something so badly and the nerves come, especially in the tight moments.

I started working with a mental coach two years ago and he has really helped me work through my emotions.

There are two types of pressure I can have - good pressure and bad pressure.

Last year, I had to win one of the last tournaments of the year in Linz to qualify for Singapore. For the first time in my life, I handled that pressure in a good way. I saw it as a challenge. If I do it, great. If not, it's ok. But I will put in 100 per cent to win this tournament and then I regret nothing.

But then there's the other way to see pressure. What happens if I lose? Everyone is going through this and everyone has to learn how to process it. When I think that way, I don't enjoy going on the court.

You're not enjoying the moment or that you're playing on a beautiful centre court. You step on court and all you can think is you don't want to lose in front of this big crowd of people who are watching you. How can you play good if you think like that?

Now I'm trying to turn negative pressure into positive pressure. That's what I'm working on with my mental coach. I asked him to come to the Qatar Total Open last month so we could work on it.

People think you just have to learn how to deal with pressure and expectations on court, but that's wrong.

You have to change your mind, in how you think about the whole day, not just matches. If you can do that, then you can manage how you'll be on the court. Ever since Doha, I've felt more like the old me.

The key is to keep things simple. I look forward to going to practice now and I tell myself, "Today I want to improve my serve" or "I want to improve my forehand". I make the goals smaller and then they become more manageable. If you look at the big picture, there's no chance. But with these smaller thoughts, you get to where you want.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Staying positive key to handling pressure'. Print Edition | Subscribe