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The great ones don't jitterbug

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I wrote this piece in 2011, but never posted it. Therefore, my excuses if the names are by now outdated, but the concept remains.

I was subject during a recent tennis broadcast to the peculiar guilty pleasure of watching Daniela Hantuchova play. I say it is a guilty pleasure because while watching Dani is all by itself something to relish, watching her bounce up and down while preparing to serve is certainly excruciating. Hantuchova is indeed a very talented player, but when one watches her do the Cha Cha Cha (or is it the Charleston?) before serving it is a clear reminder of a player that still, after all these years on tour, is poorly equipped to cope with the pressure.
Before somebody tells me she is not the only one, let me be first: she is not the only one. See, for example, how Marion Bartoli shadow boxes her return of serve before getting into position. Bartoli is a fine athlete and she approaches forehands and backhands with the same ferocity she probably displays towards a stack of Crepes Suzettes, but when she turns her back to her rival and practices hallucinatory returns of serve, you really have to wonder what message she is sending to her opponent. Confidence brimming it is not.
And before I get slammed because I am picking up on the women, allow me: it is not relegated solely to the WTA. While receiving serve, Feliciano Lopez performs a kind of kindergarten hopscotch, jumping on one foot, then the other and finally landing flatly on both, as if having reached Heaven. In reality, it spells the particular hell that must be returning one of those thermonuclear serves that dominate the ATP nowadays. And to make it even (with the WTA), I recently saw Stan Wawrinka perform some hysterical hyper cardio routine after having held serve (and getting ready to receive), so intense that it was borderline a copy right infringement of Jane Fondaís 1980ís Aerobic VHS. Had he been wearing leg warmers, Mr. Wawrinka would be in court now, about to pay a lot of money to the Ex Mrs. Ted Turner.
You see, the great ones do not go through epileptic twitches when serving or returning. They posses a certain quality, and it is that they are calm. Sure, you have Andy Roddick (not a great one, but certainly brave) getting in a big deal of a hurry to get that ball and serve another ace, but there are no silly dances or ticks. Rafa Nadal maybe is the polar opposite, taking enough time to enjoy a few tapas during one of his service games, but again, he is void of irregular twitches (his many quirks are deliberate to the point of sedation).
Compare Misses Hantuchova and Bartoli to the current paramount of mental fortitude in the WTA, Serena Williams. Miss Williams may be an explosive force on court, with certain celebrations that are close to savage and rabid, but she is poise and calmness personified before serving. Just a few ball bounces, and then a deadly delivery. When returning (and I find this odd) she is Chris Evert revisited. Both women walk to the baseline, get a good grip on their rackets, and their faces get distorted in similar ways: their nostrils expand, as in need of more oxygen, the eyes squint like those of a sharp shooter, and they calmly rock side to side, telling their opponents they are way ready. It is as if watching a judge passing sentence or, even worse, an executioner sharpening a two-stone axe. Their body language tells their opponents that they have the same respect for their serves that a cleaver has towards a chickenís neck.
I am not saying that great ones do not exude emotions. Jimmy Connors generated enough adrenaline to save hundreds of patients in cardiac arrest whenever he hit a winner at the USO, and we have seen Nadal throw enough punches into mid air that would make Manny Pacquiao raise his eyebrows in approval. But while serving and receiving, the mentally tough do not go into application routines for the Cirque Du Soleil. Perhaps the most tranquil of all players ever while getting ready to serve was Ivan Lendl. Usually considered robotic and stiff to the point of wooden, Lendl simply collected himself and got ready with his game plan. If you remember, Lendl, growing up in a time of no synthetic wraps, used to spray his grip with a fine cover of sawdust, to keep it dry. One has to wonder if he did have sawdust in his pocket or just a hole, and he reached into it to scratch his thigh and get his own sprinklings of wood on his racket.
The list goes on. On crucial points, Roger Federer will yell a bit, even shake a fist. But when it comes to serving, Federer asks for the balls, tosses back a few, and delivers. Novak bounces the ball enough times to turn it into a regular polyhedron, but again, he does so quietly. On the other side, Maria Sharapova jumps and squirts and dances to the point that a few extra steps may cause torrential rains to deluge the stadium, but we know how confident the new queen of double faults is when matters come down to her serve. Maria could become a great one, with three Grand Slams already, but perhaps she is the exception.
Because look at the list, and draw your own conclusion. Sampras, Graf, Agassi, Laver, BJK, Borg (BORG!), both Martinas. It is quite simple: the great ones donít jitterbug.

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