Who knew that vying for tennis' Grand Slam has something in common with downing Denny's namesake breakfast? The truth is, both will cause you some pain in the gut.
That's what Serena Williams must be feeling as she prepares to take the court at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York for the U.S. Open. Talk about indigestion — this meal could last two weeks.
Having won this year's Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, world No. 1 Williams stands on the precipice of the rarest feat in the game — winning all four major tournaments in a calendar year. Only five players in history have done that: Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988.
With a seventh title in New York, Serena will not only join this elite group but also tie Graf's 22 majors, leaving Court's record 24 as the final frontier in removing "arguably" from "the greatest ever."
"Pressure" is the word that's bouncing around the tennis world right now like a freshly opened can of balls on a hot summer day: "How will Serena handle the pressure of her historic quest?"
It's interesting to note what is not being asked: "Who can stop Serena?" Because the answer is: no one (see chart to right). Despite nearing 34 years of age, with 20 of them spent on tour, Williams has no rivals, no peers on par, which says something about the current state of the women's game but much more about her greatness. All of which means that for Serena to lose in New York, she will have to have a lot to do with it.
And that is exactly what causes the stomach to churn. At its core, pressure is the fear of falling short of one's goal. It's the heart rate-increasing, mind-accelerating, palm-perspiring, muscle-tightening, performance-dampening anxiety that knows things can and do go awry, even with the best preparation and strongest motivation.
As dominant as Serena has been at the U.S. Open, she can't simply engrave her name on the trophy — she must win seven, two-out-of-three-set matches over the next two weeks against varying styles and personalities, solving every obstacle that gets in her way: cheers and jeers from the boisterous crowd, humid day matches, cool under-the-lights matches, sore body parts, perhaps even illness, bad stretches of play, rain delays, swirling winds, questionable officiating, and a litany of other unknowns.
And she must overcome all this alone on the sport's most demanding stage in the world's most electric city, with the realization that this grand opportunity is unlikely to present itself again.
Serena started tasting Grand Slam fervor after winning the French Open in early June. But over the past seven weeks, since winning the third leg at Wimbledon, she's been, well, eating it for breakfast every day. The press relentlessly asks her about it. Well-wishers constantly remind her of it. I'm guessing she's relieved to finally be in New York, where she can actually do something about it.
Perspective is the antidote to pressure, and Serena will need plenty of it coursing through her mind both on and off the court. "Go out there and have fun" will not be enough when chasing this kind of history. A disciplined reductionism of playing one point at a time, and then another, and then another, with an overarching focus on preparing and competing to her best each day, should help harness her thoughts from running where they shouldn't. If there was ever a time to embrace the journey rather than obsess over the destination, this is it. Seems like a breeze, at least from the comfort of my recliner.
In case you hadn't heard, a men's tournament will be taking place in New York as well. And if world No. 2 Roger Federer continues his hot form from a week ago in Cincinnati where he straight-setted world No. 3 Andy Murray and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to win the title, we could be looking at two thirty-something U.S. Open champions with 40 Grand Slam titles between them.
Now that's an amazing number. But still, there's something even more magical about four … when they all come in the same year.
Minnesota's David Wheaton reached the singles quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 1990. David liked to relieve the pressure on tour by spending time with his yellow Lab named Ben. Their story is told in David's most recent book, "My Boy, Ben: A Story of Love, Loss and Grace." Find out more at davidwheaton.com.