April 1, 2010 -- Distractions are the bane of a tour player's existence. The sun, especially here in Key Biscayne, Florida, is obviously a prime distraction. Toss a ball up to serve and it gets lost in the brilliance, momentarily blinding the player. But that's only one of myriad distractions on a tennis court.
Venus Williams prefers to solve the mystery of her matches on her own. Why bother being distracted and call a coach at changeovers? I'm the one out here taking the heat.
Marion Bartoli, Venus's semifinals opponent this afternoon, is in direct opposition to the American. Her father Dr. Walter Bartoli has coached Bartoli since she was a child, not unlike Venus and her father/coach Richard. Marion looks to her father frequently. He claps a couple times. Nods his head in encouragement.
After the fifth game, Coach/Dad Bartoli was called for support at the changeover. Marion had successfully broken back after an early set slump. After their chat, she double faulted away the next game. So much for the coach distraction.
Williams and Bartoli were both distracted today. It wasn't a very good match. Things rolled along, then jammed up like logs at a sawmill. Neither one could find rhythm, timing, or feel the ball off their strings. Double faults from both, although Bartoli's were twice the amount of Williams at the end of the match, made the match more difficult. But these women must find a way. It's their job.
"Tennis is a huge mental game, obviously," Venus said. "You need to be there at all times. At this level, if you make two errors in a row, you can't really do that. It makes it a lot harder. It can happen quickly. When I lose serve, most of the time, I'm right back on my toes looking to break."
The second set was so wiggy fans were distracted. Once that happens, they divert their attention. They get antsy for real tennis. The tennis they paid $50 a ticket to watch. This was Venus Williams... right!!! Snap out of it girl! Otherwise, we'll check the Blackberry for the 50th time today, or go grab a chilled lemonade.
"I really felt like the two bad service games I had in the first set was really taking me down in the first," Bartoli began. "In the second I start to pick up my game, and she play also very well. But, it was all terrible. The more I was thinking okay, just put your first serve in, the worse it was getting."
Venus Williams touched down in the zone and lifted out of it several times, as the second set came to a close. She pulled the essential ingredients taut at the optimal moment, though, to win the match 63 64.
Williams's serve clicked. Her groundstrokes were impeccable. She stayed down and kept her head down -- two key facets to Venus's success on court. The last four points were mentally satisfying. There is no noise in the zone... just the ball.
"I like to think of myself as a big point player," Venus said. "When the stakes get a little higher, it feels good to be able to pull a little extra something out."
Saturday's final will be Venus's fourth at the Sony Ericsson Open. She won the title in 1998, 1999, and 2001 -- nine years ago.
"I've tried to get to the final," Venus began. "Didn't always work out. So, obviously I'm really happy to be back in this final, and obviously I want to take it a step farther."
Maybe support from little sister Serena, who sat in the photographer's pit for most of the match, nudged Venus to victory. Or, perhaps Serena distracted Bartoli.
"I saw Serena before the match," Marion said, smiling. "I said to her, it's not fair you're dressing up so nicely. I'm going [to] watch more what you're wearing than the ball."
Everyone had waited for the marquee battle between the revitalized Belgian women. Both have recently returned to the game. Both are proud of their heritage. Clijsters is Flemish Belgian. Henin is French Belgian. When each one speaks about the other, personable anecdotes are acknowledged.
Their match was a battle over the ball. Nothing personal. If you can believe that.
Clijsters dominated in the first set, closing it 6/2 in thirty-one minutes. She went up a break in the second -- 3/0. People left Stadium Court, trying to miss traffic off the Key. They missed a great show that extended two and a half hours.
"I felt that she was slowing down the game a little bit, at that point," Kim began. "A couple times she was really giving me a lot of even easier shots than I had so far. I felt I had a few chances with my forehand where I really could have gone for a winner, and I just missed a couple."
Henin came from behind to even the match in a second-set tiebreaker. She came from behind in the third set, too, to force a third-set tiebreaker.
"Even when I was down in the third set," Clijsters said, "I try not to let it affect me. I just really tried to stay focused and tried to just do what I did really well in the first set, which move in. Just really be aggressive. That's the game I have to play against whomever I'm playing."
Clijsters served for a place in the final twice, but could have been distracted by nerves or the boisterous crowd.
She hit a drop-shot winner that brought a grin to her face, which Henin did not see. And unfortunately for the French Belgian Henin, she didn't see the next, and last, ball well enough and connected too late.
"Come on!!!" Clijsters yelled, finally allowing herself to exhale, after defeating Henin 62 67 (3) 76 (6). It was Clijsters 12th career victory over Justine Henin.
"It's disappointing," Henin said. "Kim gave me the opportunity to come back in the second set. In the end I've played better, but she has been the one who really went for the opportunities. I think that really made the difference today."
Robin Soderling, minimizing distractions, covered his head with his towel at changeovers today in his winning match against Mikhail Youzhny, 6/1 6/4.
For Tomas Berdych, his perseverance brought him to home plate -- to the semifinals against Robin Soderling.
"You just need to get ready for the next opponent," Berdych began. "So just bring the positive things. I just go step by step as I did it since my first round here and not to be thinking too much ahead."
That's the point. Without distractions tennis becomes a step-by-step process, an always in-the-moment experience. Human nature, however, isn't that cut and dry. Managing the noise. Drawing you back to the game. That's the rough and tumble realm where tennis champions work and live and, if they are consistent, reap the big rewards.