Serena and the stars face up the toughest challenge of playing in a fan-free US Open

'Tennis is mental. You know, it's all mental' says the 23-time major champion

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, Serena Williams watches a shot to Arantxa Rus, of the Netherlands, during the second round at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in New York. Williams  is scheduled to play in the U.S. Open, scheduled for Aug. 31-Sept. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
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After a narrow three-set win over Arantxa Rus last week in New York, the soon-to-be 39-year-old Serena Williams was asked about her toughest challenges at this point in her record-breaking career: were they more physical or mental?

“Tennis is mental. You know, it's all mental,” said Williams without hesitation.

Tennis is indeed mostly about mentality; this is not news. Still, this past week has shown us just how far that statement runs true.

And as a fan-less US Open kicks off on Monday in a secure bio bubble with strict health and safety protocols, players will need to muster every ounce of mental strength they have for the tournament, now more than ever before.

Tennis’ first mid-pandemic grand slam is upon us and the circumstances surrounding it are undoubtedly unique.

People have already put an asterisk next to this year’s US Open, mostly because of the lengthy list of absentees (especially on the women’s side), but Williams is placing one on it because what is happening is something she’s never experienced before in her 25-year career.

“I think we are living a future history lesson. So I think regardless, there is always going to be some asterisk by it, because it's never been done before,” the 23-time major champion said.

“And if you win, it was, like, ‘wow, I was able to win in this crazy circumstance where there was no fans. It was just so sterile and weird. But I mentally came through’. It might be a more mental test than anything.”

Men’s No 2 seed Dominic Thiem echoed Williams’ sentiments.

The Austrian has, perhaps, played the most tennis compared to everyone else in the field, having contested 28 exhibition matches during the tour’s coronavirus-enforced five-month hiatus. He won 25 of them.

But when the time finally came to play his first official match at the relocated Cincinnati tournament last week, Thiem fell in the first round, acknowledging that the feeling of a “real match” is completely different. He is aware of how tricky things may get during the Open.

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2020, file photo, Austria's Dominic Thiem makes a forehand return to Serbia's Novak Djokovic during the men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia. Thiem is scheduled to play in the U.S. Open, scheduled for Aug. 31-Sept. 13, 2020.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill, File)

“Tennis is such a mental sport, and I guess it makes it way more difficult without fans, because I just imagine playing in the fifth set on Arthur Ashe, night session, way past midnight, and in a normal year you get so much energy from the fans. They give you so much, all this atmosphere,” explained Thiem.

“And now, in an empty stadium, that makes it, I guess, very, very lonely, very, very tough.

“But it's the same for everybody. The one who will do it the best, who will manage these special circumstances the best, will be the one who lifts the trophy at the end.”

Last week, Andy Murray revealed some unique insight into his current psyche after the former world No1 defeated Alexander Zverev to post his first top-10 win since 2017. After two hip surgeries and a long road to recovery, the British three-time major champion is attempting another comeback, and showed some great form before his loss to Milos Raonic in the last 16.

Andy Murray, of Great Britain, stretches for a ball from Milos Raonic, of Canada, during the third round at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Murray explained that his form in practice would not have given anyone the impression that he would be winning matches in tournament play.

“I was getting belted by everyone [in practice],” he said with a smile.

“But practice doesn't really matter. It's what obviously you do on the match court.

“If you're watching me on the court and you're watching from the stands, you might think that I get really down on myself and that I'm very negative, and I think outwardly I definitely am.

“But I think inside me, I have a very, very strong self-belief and know that I can win matches like that.

“I trust my competitive instinct. I think that's a big strength of mine. I haven't lost that yet.”

The term ‘champion’s mentality’ is thrown around in sport way too often, but rarely do we get to hear someone articulate what it truly means in such a clear and honest manner.

The next day, Murray lost badly to Raonic, but continued to take us with him on his journey, detailing why he still expects himself to do well against the game’s best, even when he’s ranked 130-something in the world and is competing with a metal hip.

“My opinion is that you should set yourself the best-in-the-world standards for everything that you do, because then it means that you're going to prepare properly for tournaments, you're going to train hard, you're going to take care of all of the details, because that's what the best in the world do, whatever job it is,” said Murray.

“I'd rather fall short of the best-in-the-world standards rather than sort of accept, ‘Okay, I'm going to play, 80, 100 in the world, that's going to be my standard this week. And if I play at that level, I'm happy’.”

One player who has set herself some pretty high standards for the season and has not fallen short thus far is Tunisian Ons Jabeur. The 26-year-old won the Roland Garros girls’ title as a teen in 2011, and spent years trying to live up to the hype that followed her junior success.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 26: Ons Jabeur of Tunisia plays a shot against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus during the Western & Southern Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 26, 2020 in New York City.   Al Bello/Getty Images/AFP

Towards the end of last season, Jabeur, ranked around 60 at the time, sat down with her team and told them she wanted to enter the top 20 in 2020. She’s currently up to a career-high 31 and is the only player to have reached the quarter-finals or better at the three biggest events of the season so far (Australian Open, Doha, Cincinnati).

The North African history-maker says she believes in her abilities way more than in the past, and gave a raw account of why she couldn’t fulfil her potential earlier in her career.

“The fear was holding me back,” confessed Jabeur. “Obviously a lot of coaches and players, they were telling me, ‘you have such an amazing game’. And at the time I was tired of hearing that and not being able to perform well on the court.

“So I was kind of frustrated at certain times that I couldn't really achieve it. So of course the confidence goes down a little bit. I knew that I had to face my fear.”

Jabeur, who says her creative playing style relies on her feeling free and relaxed, is concerned about how she’ll handle being confined to her hotel room when not on-site at the tournament, due to the event’s strict protocols.

The last major before lockdown

The multifaceted Stefanos Tsitsipas also found it difficult at first not being allowed to take his camera and head to the streets of Manhattan for some impromptu photoshoots.

Williams joked that during one of her matches last week, she was imagining the sound of the crowd in her head as she fist-pumped her way to victory.

During such a difficult year, in which everyone is being challenged in unprecedented ways, every single player addressing the press this past week highlighted the importance of their mental work and preparation for this wild period.

Williams and Thiem are right – winning this US Open will be a true mental triumph.