Being a professional athlete looks glamorous, at least at first. Many of us have even imagined a grand entry on to stadium court of our dreams. The adulation, the millions of eyes and the flush of pride would fill every corner or the mind and body sends chills down our spines.
Of course, these moments exist for world-class tennis players. Yet they are a tiny percentage of the day-in-day-out demands of their careers. The reality of their lives doesn’t match our imaginations of glory.
We don’t see players after they exit through stadium tunnels, and end up on a massage table, in an ice bath, with tape ripped off their ankles and feet. This end of the career, though, is the foundation for the match. It balances the days, weeks and years of pursuing a higher rank.
“With the discipline comes a lot of tightness, as well,” Andrea Petkovic said after her quarterfinal victory over Karolina Pliskova. “Miami kind of relaxes me. Maybe because it’s kind of crazy and chaotic. These two opposites, they sort of mesh into a place that’s good for me.”
Petkovic, who was born in Bosnia and raised in Germany, admits being a “total stereotype of a German.”
“I’m kind of proud of it. I’m just try to do everything as good and as perfect that I can be. But the minute when it gets too much and when I want to, it transforms into a tightness. Then I just can’t play at all.”
Finding the balance between fired-up and zoned-in can be difficult during a match. Any player would probably readily admit that the balance is found as a match progresses or — at times — not at all, which then means it has to be manufactured.
Novak Djokovic went through the grind Tuesday in his three-set roller-coaster match against the uniquely athletic Alexandr Dolgopolov. Djokovic, the top seed, had lost the first set and was down 4-1 in the second. But, he found a way to turn the match in his favor, winning 6-7(3), 7-5, 6-0.
“The entire day was one of those days where you don’t feel so great mentally,” Djokovic said. “I was, say, losing my composure in the first set because I didn’t feel good.”
Not feeling well meant two code violations and a point penalty for Djokovic, as well. Dolgopolov’s unconventional style, lack of rhythm, and crowd-pleasing gymnastics played on the Serb.
He wasn’t amused.
He was off balance.
“I was fighting a different battle inside of myself, I would say,” Djokovic added. “That was the biggest battle that I fought today.”
Djokovic has played a lot of tennis this season. Fatigue played a part in Tuesday’s encounter, but the show must go on.
“I had a great start of the year,” he said. “It’s taking a little bit of a toll mentally. I don’t feel that I’m very fresh on the court, even though I’m trying.”
With a day off prior to tonight’s encounter against David Ferrer, he admitted the rest would serve him well. “It will definitely help me recover mentally mostly because physically I’m fine.”
One day, though, might not be enough for the defending champion, given the magical acts he’s performed in previous rounds. He defeated Martin Klizan in the first round, but the scoreline was anything but straightforward: 6-0, 5-7, 6-1. Steve Darcis went down 6-0, 7-5 to the World No. 1, but the Belgian qualifier had Djokovic up against his struggles.
“In ideal scenario, ideal world, you don’t drop a set and you win a tournament, right, every single tournament that you play,” Djokovic began. “But that’s not possible.”
Ups and downs are the reality of life on and off a tennis court, but the perfect world, these players continually attempt to reach is the correct trajectory. If they don’t drive themselves in that direction, the few points that separate winners from losers will haunt them and slow their growth.
“I’m worried that I have expectations behind me,” he said. “As soon as I get on the court, especially in the final three, four matches of the tournament, people expect me to win comfortably and just get out of the way. But it’s much more difficult than it seems from outside of the court.”
The loss, though, brings confidence if not from Tuesday’s match — which Djokovic turned on a dime — but for the next one.
Petkovic didn’t fare as well as Djokovic in Indian Wells. In her first match in the desert, she lost in the second round against the standout qualifier, Lesia Tsurenko. Even with the early loss, she believed she was on the right path. In practice, her game clicked — yet, it didn’t transfer to the match.
“I just couldn’t transfer my game into the match,” she began. “I was very upset and disappointed with that.”
Club players know this angst. Many stick with the sport to surmount that chasm between their brilliance in practice and dismal results in matches.
“Being able to bring that personal, maybe not the fiery side but maybe just the relaxed, outgoing girl that I am in personal life, to bring that into my tennis life, as well, is maybe the key for me to be playing well,” Petkovic said, about finding the mix of relaxation and concentration. “There are players, when you see them hitting the ball, you wonder why they are not in the top 10, and then you cannot even find them in the top 100. It’s such a difference between practice and matches and being able to find the right balance for yourself.”
That balance eluded her against Carla Suarez Navarro in the semifinals; kept guessing by the Spaniard’s crafty game, Petkovic was plagued by unforced errors and her fiery frustration before falling, 6-3, 6-3.
Serena Williams struggled through her quarterfinal win over Sabine Lisicki on Wednesday, winning 7-6(4), 1-6, 6-3. Her timing was off, early in the match. She landed less than half of her first serves — a lowly 45 percent, and she won only 60 percent of the points off those serves. She connected on just four aces, and none came in the second set.
Williams may start a match all wiggly, looking as if she’d cry between points, but she is consistently the woman who, in the end, balances the statistics and pulls away to win.
On Thursday, she earned her 700th match win.
“I know today wasn’t my best day,” Williams began. “I just told myself, I’m not serving the way I normally serve and hitting the way I normally would hit, so at this point all I can do is just fight and try to give 200% instead of 100%.”
Williams’ balancing act could get her an eighth, and tournament record, Miami crown come Sunday. Her ability to find the switch that changes a match outcome equals, and often surpasses, that of her greatest peers from both the men’s and women’s games.
“Definitely a little bit of a natural reaction for me,” Williams said, when asked how she manages to lift her game. “Obviously I don’t want to lose or, at least, I want to try to do the best I can.”