Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Distract yourself: the key to big wins?

February 1, 2010: 11:10 AM ET

"I get up for the big ones," Serena Williams said after her Australian Open win.

She and Roger Federer, the men's champ, grabbed the headlines this weekend, but the most intriguing story to me lies behind--in the fact that the greats who outperformed Down Under have been distracted from their main game lately. Intentionally so. And all for the better.

Justine Henin, for instance, took Williams to three sets in the Open final--the first triple-setter in a Grand Slam women's final since Wimbledon in 2006. Henin, 27, did so playing in just her second tournament after taking a 20-month sabbatical. The score in the fiercely fought women's final was 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, and Williams told the New York Times that she had to "man up" to beat Henin.

Interesting term for a woman raising her game. (Don't you look forward to the day when Federer or whoever inherits his crown as the world's No. 1 male player says he had to "woman up" to win?) Anyway, Williams, who is No. 1 among women, said that Henin, who was a wild-card entry, took her to the "umpteenth level." Henin's game, she said, was "execellent before she left. But you know, I think she's added a lot to it."

As for Williams, 28, she has cited the value of taking breaks from the grueling tour to focus on her jewelry and fashion-design businesses.

It's all about stepping back--which, particularly these days, so many high-achieving women in sports, business and beyond (and some men too) would love to do if only they could be assured a place at the top upon their return. Taking time off, say many who have done it, can provide new vision (seeing the forest for the trees), new perspective (losing is not the end-all), and new agility. That liberation from a single and consuming goal may loosen the body and freshen the mind to, as Williams said, "get up for the big one."

Remember last September, Kim Clijsters won the 2009 U.S. Open after she took two years off to get married and have a child? The morning after her win, I ran into Billie Jean King at JFK airport. (We were both heading to Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit in San Diego). The legendary King (whom Williams on Saturday tied for total Grand Slam victories, 12) told me that she thought Clijsters' time off centered her--exactly what she needed to be a champ again.

As for Federer, 28, he has a healthy distraction as well. This weekend win--his fourth Australian Open championship--was his first Grand Slam victory since he became a father of twin girls last summer. Good for him.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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