04 February 2019

‘Practice, lots of practice!’

Maria Sharapova lost to Ashleigh Barty 6-4, 1-6, 4-6 in the Round of 16 of the Australian Open last Sunday. Barty, the 22 year old Australian, clearly the local favorite and seen as a rising star, lost in the quarterfinal to the No 8 seed, Petra Kvitová, the Czech who won the Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014.  This is not about Barty or Kvitová though. 


Sharapova is still on the hard road back to professional tennis following a doping suspension. At 31, her chances of the former world number one making it back to the top seem slim. And yet, Sharapova, ranked 30th in the event, defeated the third seed, Caroline Wozniacki from Poland 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

There’s some bad blood between the two and Sharapova’s performance on court has given her the edge in exchanges. That’s not what this is about either. It’s about what she said in the post-match interview.

She was asked what had made a difference in her performance in the first week of the Australian Open. She said, ‘practice, lots of practice.’ 

And it’s not only practice, she observed: ‘It’s always different bringing that practice into match play. That’s the one thing that was tough for me…to get back the hand-eye coordination after not playing for a long time. The return, the anticipation. Those are the types of things you lose being away from the game.’

It’s not only doping that keeps people ‘away from the game.’ Bad form can do it. Inexplicable selection policies (in the case of team sports) can do it. Injury can keep a player away. Pregnancy could do it too, as was in the case of Serena Williams. A decision to retire early (later to be regretted and re-thought) can do it. 

It is tough. Brilliant though Serena Williams’ performance was towards the end of the 2018 season, the ‘time away’ clearly was a key factor in her not being able to win it all at the US Open and Wimbledon, although she made it to the finals.  

Michael Jordan, when he returned from retirement in March 1995 helped the Chicago Bulls to the Eastern Conference Final. Although he averaged 31 points per game, Orlando Magic won the series in six games. Jordan led the Bulls to three consecutive titles beginning the following season.   

Was he rusty? Perhaps. After the first game of that series against Magic, Nick Anderson, who had stripped Jordan from behind, leading to the game-winning basket for the Magic, remarked that Jordan ‘didn't look like the old Michael Jordan,’ and that ‘No. 45 [the number that Jordan chose to wear upon his return] doesn't explode like No. 23 used to.’  

It is probable that he had to fight through the same kinds of issues that Sharapova fought and is fighting through.  

The key of course is ‘practice, lots of practice.’ You don’t know when injury can hit you, you don’t know when you’ll recover if injured, you don’t know if you would be dropped or have to face some kind of personal crisis. One has to do the can-do, must-do things. 

Practice.

Tedious, unforgiving, even depressing hours, days, weeks, months and sometimes even years. And not only when you are ‘out’. Indeed when one’s ‘in’ practice is as non-negotiable. That’s one thing that separates the great from the good. No letting up, no dropping of guard, no sloth, no indiscipline. 

We saw flashes of it in Sharapova. It’s clearly visible in Serena’s game. We saw how Federer got back his winning ways. Nadal, Djokovic and others have ‘come back’. 

Practice. That’s a fundamental, can’t-do-without element.


OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES [THE INTERCEPTION] PUBLISHED IN 'THE SUNDAY MORNING'
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