Phil Jackson, the world’s tallest, richest Buddhist monk, quoted Zen wisdom to help his players through the stress of big moments.
Among his favourites: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
While coaching the Chicago Bulls, Jackson was among the first to preach quietude . The athlete must live inside a moment, rather than dwell on its ramifications. Easy to understand; hard to do.
But if you can manage it, it’s the key to confidence. It’s a state independent of what came before, and ignorant of what might come after. This is “the zone” that the pros are always talking about. The rest of us only reach it occasionally. Usually while under heavy sedation.
Though it’s very early days in her career, Eugenie Bouchard is one of those performers who depend heavily on the zone. She’s either in it, or she’s out. And quickly. Take away the Slams, and Bouchard has lost her first match in eight of 15 tournaments this year.
So while a first-round win over the 117th-ranked player in the world doesn’t matter to many top pros, it matters to Bouchard. Enter Olga Govortsova, the Canadian’s pinata for a day.
For four games, it was a contest. In the fifth, it began to tilt toward the gangly Belarusian. This wasn’t yet a sinking feeling, but the boat had begun to list.
Down 15-40 on her own serve, Bouchard slowed for a few minutes to gather herself. She didn’t look toward her team. She didn’t fidget or begin throwing out her arms in despair, which we’ve seen. She only stared hard at the ground in front of her. Then she found it. What “it” is, no athlete can tell you exactly.
She pulled back two break points. She pulled out the game. She won eight of the next nine games. She didn’t allow herself the freedom of a fist pump until well into the second set.
Though never having looked like she expected to win, by the end, Govortsova was rushing around the court like someone looking for the emergency exit. It’s hard to say when she gave up all hope, but it was long before the handshake.
This was about talent, first of all. But it was also about one person’s will crushing that of another. That’s what makes this sport both so cruel and so compelling.
“I try to get into the zone as often as I can. That’s not always possible. I don’t know if I was today or not,” Bouchard said. “A few matches a year, you really get into a zone and everything goes your way. All the other matches, it’s a struggle.”
There are a lot of good, tangible reasons why Bouchard has stumbled in so many tournaments this year, save the only ones that really matter.
In the past few weeks, she’s been hurt. Both knees. A hamstring. She’d been brutal in Montreal, but she’d also lost to a pair of formidable veterans in Sam Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova. All things considered, the lead-up to Flushing Meadows wasn’t nearly as bad as advertised.
Nonetheless, all the messaging coming out of her camp has been about managing expectations. Bouchard has it down as well.
“I don’t want to set a specific, you know, goal to reach a certain round or anything like that,” she said after the 6-2, 6-1 win.
That line should come with a laugh track.
Bouchard has a relatively straight path to the quarters, where she would likely face the woman who dominated her at the Wimbledon final, Petra Kvitova.
Exorcise the ghosts. That’s the obvious goal.
Though we’ve seen too little of her to know for sure, Bouchard is shaping up as that very specialized athletic beast – a form player.
This genus thrives in professional team sports, where they can hide for long stretches when things aren’t going so well. Usually in the regular season. They emerge into the open when it matters, in the playoffs. A lot of great careers have been made out of very few great performances this way.
However, it’s hard to think of anyone who manages this sort of thing in an individual sport such as tennis. Here, consistency is key. You build into a big win.
Trainers and sports psychologists call it peaking. Somehow, Bouchard has turned this theory on its head. In her world, she bombs out in a bunch of tournaments she should dominate, using those failures as inspiration for the ones that should be difficult.
There’s no explaining it, because it doesn’t make any sense. The majors bring out the best in Bouchard. Everything else bores her.
One day in and you could already see the mental portcullis coming down. The cocky, game-faced Bouchard has returned. Someone underhanded her a beach ball in the post-match Q&A: Who were her Canadian tennis influences?
“I never had any Canadian tennis influences,” Bouchard said. “I looked up to the best.”
Alrighty then. And quickly moving on.
This looks a lot more like the player who has dominated for short stretches when it mattered this year. Some people think summer stock matters. “They paid good money for a ticket,” and all that noise. Bouchard mails it in until she gets to Carnegie Hall. It’s hard to gainsay when it works.
Her coach, Nick Saviano, called this unusual ability “a gift.” It is, more specifically, a very particular and difficult-to-attain state of mind. Chop the wood. Carry the water.