If you don’t practice yoga, you might have the idea that yoga postures are for the beautiful and flexible as demonstrated on social media platforms such as Instagram. Might it to surprise you to learn that these original postures (about 30 in total) were created as a means to get the body comfortable and strong enough in order to sit for longer periods of meditation? Just as consistency doesn’t sell magazines off of a newsstand compared to power in tennis, meditation is asana’s less sexy limb on the eightfold path of yoga. Little by little, for as long as I’ve been paying attention, this climate is beginning to change especially as it relates to tennis players, specifically amongst tennis players on the pro tour.
Exhibits A & B:
Enter Bianca Andreescu, Canadian newcomer and 2019 Champion of the U.S. Open. Exhibiting a refreshing style of play mixing power, touch and the occasional moon ball reminiscent of juniors, she’s confident and bold, in the way that sometimes rubs opponents the wrong way. For a new player on the scene, she hasn’t hidden her commitment to meditation which she was very vocal about in the press conferences and podcasts that followed her major win. For example, Andreescu was asked in an interview by Rennae Stubbs on the Racquet Magazine Podcast, if she would recommend meditation to tennis players in general: “I think it should be a daily practice for anyone, not only in sports because you see everybody working their body, but never their mind, because we don’t necessarily talk about meditation…The main reason that I use it (meditation) is for my sport, but also for my quality of life in general which translates on court.”
The problem with meditation is that it's practiced behind the scenes and if not, can often go unnoticed to the untrained practitioner. This is why I loved witnessing the proof, the power that is Yoga for Tennis, in the form of meditation: Vika vs. Serena in the semifinals of the 2020 U.S. Open. I was already invested in Vika, rooting for that “double in the bubble” after her having won the pseudo “Cincinnati” Western and Southern Open, even though I would have also been happy to see Serena continue her quest in upping her slam record, working towards, if not already the greatest of all time.
Setting the Scene
Serena crushes Vika in the first set, not because Vika is playing poorly, but because “Serena is being Serena” as Chris Evert often likes to say. Even so, you begin to see a slight shift in confidence building from the end of the first, into the beginning of the second set, which eventually leads to a break and a win in the second set for the Belarusian. Up until this stage in her career, despite having been #1 in the world nearly 8 years ago, Azarenka has never beaten Serena Williams, with a record of 0-10 against Williams in the slams. The stats were not in her favor.
The Third Set
The grunts are getting louder in the already cavernous stadium due to COVID, and one might have guessed that the outcome would be anything but ordinary just as this entire year has proven to be. Azarenka breaks again, placing her in the lead and then drama unfolds a bit further as Serena takes a medical time out to tend to her ankle. Cut to Victoria Azarenka, cool as a cucumber seated with her eyes closed in what appears to be an obvious exhibition of internal focus in the opposition to the very external circumstances of what’s happening on court and what’s at stake in a very memorable U.S. Open for a myriad of reasons. Sure, we’ve seen players focusing their gaze, covering their head with towels, and even bouncing up and down in the attempt to stay loose during these long medical time outs. But to the trained eye, this appeared to be yoga in action: sense withdrawal and concentration, stillness inducing focus, and it was fruitful in the end to produce Vika’s first win against Serena in a slam, placing her in the final once again, against eventual winner Naomi Osaka.
The proof is in the pudding:
We saw this incredible and effective display from one of the world’s best players who had been out of the sport for a while now (due to a custody battle) and who seemingly came back from out of nowhere with an attitude of joy that was undeniable in her interviews and press conferences between matches. In the post-match interview that followed the semi-final, Mary Jo Fernandez asked Azarenka about how she was able to find the right balance between energy and calm and she said : “I think it’s the work I’ve been doing to finding the calm mind.” She also talked about not only identifying as a tennis player (as she previously had) but also a mother who has other, personal dreams, and that she thought her ego had become smaller now that she considers motherhood the most important and challenging job one could have. While this blog is mainly about the power of meditation and the power of focus (that has to be practiced by the way so that it can be used in times of stress) there are other themes of yoga here supported by Azarenka that are encouraging to see as a Yoga for Tennis teacher. Just as the sport of tennis can be used as a metaphor for life and for self-improvement, the practice of yoga, and ultimately Yoga for Tennis can prove so useful not only in competition but in the “changeovers” of life, if we can become still enough to focus and notice the potential for momentum to shift as it did in this one memorable example.
Margit Bannon is both a certified Elite Tennis Professional with the USPTA and Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance. She teaches Yoga for Tennis at her place of business:
Play Tennis. Practice Yoga.® located in Southwest Florida. Please visit www.playtennispracticeyoga.com for more information.