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post #1 of 7 (permalink) Old May 14th, 2016, 01:01 AM Thread Starter
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Models of Mental Strength: Evert, Graf and Seles

I consider these three the best ever in women's tennis in terms of mental strength. The Holy Trinity of Tennis Mental Strength so to speak. I know there are a lot of other great female players and players with better achievements than some or all of them but I think if I had to pick a mentality/mentalities that I would like to model myself on, it would be one or all of these three. Why? Because I think this was a major or the best part of their games and also they never showed doubt nor were distracted. But I think their mental strength comes from different areas. I want to break it down and hopefully fans of each player can have more inputs. I think this mentality very much comes from their personality/their upbringing.

Chris Evert - Chris's game is a model of concentration but also a model of the wood racquet game. If you've ever hit with a wood racquet, you'd know how much concentration it requires and especially for a player that relies on being a consistent baseliner, this is pretty much her game. So I think her mental strength comes from being in the moment for every pooint and pure concentration.

Steffi Graf - Perhaps I haven't seen enough Graf matches as Evert or Seles but I think more than any other player in tennis history, I feel she's a perfectionist. She is someone who always thinks she can play a shot or a point better. That drive for perfectionism drives her will to win. I think this goes a long way in her not feeling nerves or pressure. Her goal was perfectionism, almost like an artist, not driven by results.

Monica Seles - I always remember reading about how she grew up hitting balls against carpark walls. Basically, she just enjoyed hitting balls. I remember some of her early matches where she forgot the score and would go to the wrong side of the court or the net. Very much a player who played for every point but more importantly when the stakes got higher, her intensity got higher.

So I think there are 3 keys points here:

Concentration: Being in the moment. Concentrate on what you're doing.

Perfectionism: A little like concentrating on what you're doing in that it's about perfecting yourself, your strokes.

Intensity: Live for the point. Feel the need to win every point like you're down match point.

It's interesting that the three points are linked also. Also, I don't think mental toughness is just about coming back when down and pushing through. I think it is a mentality or approach to the game that is beyond simply just winning.

I would like to hear what everyone else thinks.

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post #2 of 7 (permalink) Old May 15th, 2016, 05:08 PM
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Re: Models of Mental Strength: Evert, Graf and Seles

Julie Heldman once compared playing against Chris Evert to medieval siege warfare! So yes, I agree that her mental wheels were turning and churning on every point.

Rare are the times she got nervous too. At least not to the point where it showed on court.

As for Steffi, as she had an more all round game than Evert or Seles I felt it helped her in than aspect. You would NEVER see Chris or Monica serve and volley in singles, Steffi could and at times did serve and volley, even if rarely.

Conversely Graf, while not a nervous type either, at times lost IMO due to not reigning it in. As Mary Carillo used to say about Steffi, "at least she dies with her boots on", meaning she usually kept right on gunning her forehand at full throttle regardless. More often than not this worked. Champions are stubborn I guess.

One time Steffi did pull back was versus Novotna at Wimbledon in 1993. She recognized the fear in Jana's eyes and let Novotna self destruct in the 3rd set.

What impressed me about Monica was she often did pull in her game when it was off. Several times she would resort to deep looped shots until her normal bulldozer game returned. While Serena Williams is superior overall to Seles IMO, I can't imagine Monica losing the nervous type of matches of Serena does. Had Seles had Roberta Vinci in her sights blocking her from a grand slam I pity Vinci!


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post #3 of 7 (permalink) Old May 15th, 2016, 06:42 PM
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Re: Models of Mental Strength: Evert, Graf and Seles

I would agree that these three are the greatest mentally, at least of the modern era, and certainly of all time. Much has been said about Connolly and Wills in the mental department, but having never seen them play to any great length, all I can do is say that, as with so many of these types of conversations, they should definitely be considered a part of the equation.

One area with Evert that I've always found a bit troubling is with regards to confidence, more so than with either Seles or Graf, I feel that self belief could trip her up, particularly when playing someone she deemed her superior, be that King on a grass court (she never had issues with BJK on clay), the 'Austin' phase, and Navratilova and Graf's domination. I feel like there were matches against them both where had she had the sort of unbridled self-confidence of Graf or Seles ('90-'93) she could have pulled them out.

That said, when Chrissie felt that she had an advantage (usually mentally) or was at least the equal of her opponent she was mentally indestrucable, I just feel that second guessing came into the equation too often against players she felt inferior to. That said, one of her greatest gifts is that she never let on and that probably was the primary reason she was able to end Navratilova's streak.

Graf is always a curiosity to me in that she did seem to 'die with her boots on' as it were, she really is the most complete player from both the mental and physical realm which is why I do consider her to be the GOAT as much as I have never been a fan. Still, she was relentless mentally.

Seles mentally was like Tracy Austin on steroids, really indefatigable in her relentlessness, she was so unyielding. Her matches against Sabatini in the Paris semis in '91 and against Capriati at the U.S. Open the same year are prime examples of that ferocious tenacity.
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post #4 of 7 (permalink) Old May 15th, 2016, 08:46 PM
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Re: Models of Mental Strength: Evert, Graf and Seles

Evert's mental strength was concentration, both on her technique and on working the ball/constructing the point. Yes, much of it was driven by the nature of wooden rackets (however, I also think some of her penchant for long "game of chess" points -- or longueurs, depending on one's personal tennis/entertainment tastes -- was "idealogical" for want of a better term, but that is for another thread). She had to be much more mindful of her technique than players with modern, highly forgiving rackets, and it's very hard to explain that properly to people who have no idea what it's like to play with something that has a sweet spot smaller than a petite woman's fist and utter unpredicatability off the sweet spot. So we're not just talking about mere swing mechanics, but on footwork and getting into and out of position, and trying to think 5 shots ahead. A lot of intense practicing, mental and physical, went on to reach the level where she could play "mindful" tennis without thinking about it, if that makes any sense. The big drawbacks to this are that it produced a lot of mental wear-and-tear; and it left her vulnerable to players who didn't work the ball the way she did. (Essentially, in the span of her career, only the highest quality serve-and-volleyers and Graf.)

Graf's mental strength was more "problem solving" -- and "problem posing." What to do with the ball that will advance the purpose of winning the point/game/match? Graf usually had the answer, and usually it was an efficient (and sometimes even an elegant or outside-the-box) answer, but she was also not above winning ugly or brute force persistance hunting -- or playing along with an opponent for the sake of producing entertainment value. And then the flip side was that she made the opponents think, but without giving them enough time to think. The other mental strength was that she really did like challenges. The big drawbacks for Graf's strengths were if an opponent who was previously "solved" suddenly changed up and Graf wasn't really paying attention/"into it"/taking it seriously enough; and Graf was impatient and sometimes wanted to "skip steps" or get too cutesy and went straight for a shot that genuinely needed more strokes to set it up. (Essentially, in the span of her career, only Sabatini and ASV.)

Seles' mental strength was self-belief. Even into the middle of her perennial losing quarterfinalist stage, she played with a kind of "I CANNOT AND WILL NOT BE DEFEATED!!!" fury (with a few telling exceptions). Her confidence and almost-obsession with winning carried her through matches in which she was the less skilled/athletic/intelligent player, and through periods when I do not think she knew which way was up. The big drawbacks to this were if anything ever disrupted that self-belief, her game/athleticism/tactics were more like an average Top Tenner (if that makes any sense) than an all-time great; and there was a certain caliber of opponent which no amount of self-belief could overcome. (Essentially, in the span of her "non-obsolescent" career, only Graf, Navratilova when she was yet young enough, the Williams sisters, Hingis, and Davenport.)
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post #5 of 7 (permalink) Old May 16th, 2016, 04:00 AM
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Re: Models of Mental Strength: Evert, Graf and Seles

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Originally Posted by Sam L View Post
I consider these three the best ever in women's tennis in terms of mental strength. The Holy Trinity of Tennis Mental Strength so to speak. I know there are a lot of other great female players and players with better achievements than some or all of them but I think if I had to pick a mentality/mentalities that I would like to model myself on, it would be one or all of these three. Why? Because I think this was a major or the best part of their games and also they never showed doubt nor were distracted. But I think their mental strength comes from different areas. I want to break it down and hopefully fans of each player can have more inputs. I think this mentality very much comes from their personality/their upbringing.

Chris Evert - Chris's game is a model of concentration but also a model of the wood racquet game. If you've ever hit with a wood racquet, you'd know how much concentration it requires and especially for a player that relies on being a consistent baseliner, this is pretty much her game. So I think her mental strength comes from being in the moment for every pooint and pure concentration.

Steffi Graf - Perhaps I haven't seen enough Graf matches as Evert or Seles but I think more than any other player in tennis history, I feel she's a perfectionist. She is someone who always thinks she can play a shot or a point better. That drive for perfectionism drives her will to win. I think this goes a long way in her not feeling nerves or pressure. Her goal was perfectionism, almost like an artist, not driven by results.

Monica Seles - I always remember reading about how she grew up hitting balls against carpark walls. Basically, she just enjoyed hitting balls. I remember some of her early matches where she forgot the score and would go to the wrong side of the court or the net. Very much a player who played for every point but more importantly when the stakes got higher, her intensity got higher.

So I think there are 3 keys points here:

Concentration: Being in the moment. Concentrate on what you're doing.

Perfectionism: A little like concentrating on what you're doing in that it's about perfecting yourself, your strokes.

Intensity: Live for the point. Feel the need to win every point like you're down match point.

It's interesting that the three points are linked also. Also, I don't think mental toughness is just about coming back when down and pushing through. I think it is a mentality or approach to the game that is beyond simply just winning.

I would like to hear what everyone else thinks.
Excellent post. I do have to remind that someone got 19 majors never going down under, mostly because of her mental game. Evert was not the first to totally dominate the entire field mentally.
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post #6 of 7 (permalink) Old May 16th, 2016, 04:11 AM
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Re: Models of Mental Strength: Evert, Graf and Seles

the real secret to Evert's mental strength was not the shots that she hit, but the ones she denied herself. You never saw Evert hit a shot she should not, out of boredom, excitement, arrogance or desperation. Emotion played almost no role in her choices. As Drysdale put it, Evert was an unusual champion in that she knew her limitations and played within them. Risk-taking was always calculated risk taking. Her brilliance was her self discipline.
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post #7 of 7 (permalink) Old May 17th, 2016, 08:56 PM
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Re: Models of Mental Strength: Evert, Graf and Seles

I am convinced that the most important shot in tennis is the return of serve. With the service itself, you are always in charge, but a good return of serve means that you almost have the same power of the serve in the games when you are NOT serving.

I think it is no coincidence that the return of serve was Chris Evert's best shot. She would take every rally by the scruff of the neck, dictating the play, moving the player around, exhausting them both physically and mentally. The only times she was unable to do this was against peak serve-and-volley Martina (particular in 1983, when she was trying to return Martina's serves with a wooden racket!)... or when she was over the hill and the Grafster could just blow her physically off the court and run down anything with all her youthful speed and power.

I believe that Evert was the supreme mental champion of all time (possibly even more so than Wills and Connolly). I think that both Graf and Seles tended to just blast their way out of trouble (mental almost did not come into it with them, it was more a kamikaze style -- which maybe requires a very high mental plane, of course!). The only mistakes she made in terms of tactics were against Austin in 1979 and Graf in 1987. She believed that she could patiently out-rally them and come out on top that way... but this was not so. They were young and eager champions who had largely grown up watching her game, especially Austin, and could play it pretty well themselves. Thankfully, Evert realised that she needed to mix it up and take the match to these two "upstarts" -- and it worked as seen by the famous 1980 US Open victory and the more competitive matches against Graf in 1988 (and a close three-setter in 1989).

Evert also let Navratilova get into her head... and I think it lingered on even after she started beating her again in 1985. She had some great wins over Martina in her final years, but I think she suffered some long-term mental block against Martina after the trauma of 1983-84. An earlier Chris would have won the 1988 Wimbledon semi-final I feel.... but by that time, beating Navratilova on grass was just a bridge too far in Chrissie's mind...

Last edited by Sumarokov-Elston; May 17th, 2016 at 11:36 PM.
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