Lindsay Davenport can laugh about it now, but the nerves before a Grand Slam final were no joke at the time.
“I played in six Slam finals. I won three and I lost three,” the Australian Open 2000 titlist related this week. “Each one I wanted to throw up every time I took to the court!”
Nerves will inevitably play a part in Saturday night’s women’s final between Victoria Azarenka and Li Na too. In fact, in some ways, nerves may have already played their part in determining the Australian Open 2013 women’s champion, as evidenced by Azarenka’s stunning post-match admission that she almost experienced “the choke of the year” in surrendering four match points before her semi-final victory against Sloane Stephens.
The timing of that statement – delivered in Azarenka’s post-match o- court interview in which she was asked to explain an injury time-out – was unfortunate, but it underlined the pressures that accompany such deep progression in a Grand Slam event. Claiming a prize that’s as momentous as an Australian Open title requires far more than physical skill alone.
As Davenport also explained, it’s a feat of endurance that often comes down to the mental kind. “That’s the challenge of the Grand Slams, it’s the 14 or 15 days of keeping your focus and concentration day in and day out,” she pointed out.
“To be honest, a lot of times towards the end of a tournament, you’re so mentally fatigued it really goes to show just who can just handle the situation better.”
Davenport, who claimed her first major at the 1998 US Open and her second at Wimbledon the following year, believes the opportunity that’s created by progressing to a Grand Slam final can be overwhelming – and for that reason, the American can’t name one such occasion that was more nerve-wracking than another.
“It didn’t matter,” she said. “That’s just the reality of the situation. Very rarely, growing up when you have a dream, so few times does (fulfilling) that ever become possible. I was always well aware of that and well aware of everything I had worked for going out to play one of the finals.”
Martina Hingis, a winner of five Grand Slam finals and a finalist in seven others, also has a hard-gained perspective of competing for such high stakes. The Swiss star was known for her calm tactical abilities on court, but admits there were times when she had to work on it.
“If it’s a past champion, already she knows what it feels like to go out there, but you still have those little jitters, I guess, before walking on,” Hingis said.
“But you’re already kind of happy that you made the final, so it’s like a big occasion. Then you just want to perform at your best.”
For Hingis, it wasn’t merely the big occasion of a Grand Slam final that created the pressure but often a consequence of which player she was facing in it. She recalls the 1997 US Open against Venus Williams as being particularly nerve-wracking – although, given she claimed that match 6-0 6-4, she clearly managed the situation well – and could be equally anxious before a big meeting with Serena Williams or Davenport.
Equally, the question of which Grand Slam final she was contesting also had an influence on her mind power.
“Here in Australia I felt like this was my backyard,” she noted with a smile.
Margaret Court – who arguably handled the pressures of a Grand Slam final better than any other player given that she claimed an unequalled 24 of them – also found that location could influence her pre-final emotions. Contesting Australian Open finals was particularly nerve-wracking, primarily because how much winning them mattered.
“Having won 11 of them, it was always lovely to be your own nation’s champion and the No.1, particularly when you were going away overseas,” she said.
An equalising factor in today’s final could be that both players have already experienced the high-stakes occasion at least once – Azarenka as the Australian Open 2012 champion and Li as the 2011 finalist and French Open winner just a few months later.
Having to fight for earlier victories at this event can’t hurt either. As Court noted, “I think if you’ve had a couple of tough matches, it can help you if you do get into a tight position, knowing everything hasn’t been too easy for you, that you’ve played your way out of some things ... that helps a lot.”
So too does the fact that when inevitable mental battles begin, the hard work in physical preparation can play a part.
“I think you know you’ve put the work in,” Court said.
“Everybody wants to win it, and it’s the best person that’s playing the best on that day, but it’s always lovely to get to the final.”
Azarenka or Li would almost certainly agree – if not before today’s final, then at least at some point soon afterwards. Nerves or not, like Davenport, Hingis and other Grand Slam finalists before them, some day they’ll look back on this one and smile.