"Pressure is a privilege. Champions adjust."
Watching Serena Williams score her fifth US Open women's singles title last evening, I couldn't stop thinking of Billie Jean King's advice on winning. During the first two sets of Sunday's nearly three-hour thriller vs. Victoria Azarenka, Williams could hardly get out of her own way, committing double faults and unforced errors as nasty wind gusts visibly rattled her.
How does a champion adjust—and pull out the victory? Here's wisdom that King, who won the women's singles title at the US Open four times 40 years ago, shared in an interview that I did with her in June at Fortune's Most Powerful Women conference in London. King's advice is as applicable to business--and life--as it is to tennis:
1. Own your feelings. "Everybody chokes. The most important thing that I learned is to admit what's going on." At one critical moment at Wimbledon decades ago, King was serving at game point in front of the Royal box. "My hands were shaking. My knees were knocking. Finally, I said to myself, 'I am so nervous. I'm about ready to throw up.' As soon as I said that, I was fine--because it defused it. It's like saying, 'I have a problem.' You have to take ownership of your feelings. I did, and I won the point. It was huge."
2. Stay in the solution. "In a match, 75% of the time, you're not hitting a tennis ball. The champions use that 75% better than anybody else. And they're stronger emotionally. Emotionally, not mentally. Everyone says, 'Oh, they're mentally tough.' Mental is what you think; emotional is what you feel. Most of us break down when we get nervous, because of what we're feeling. You have to stay in the solution. When you commit an error, you take in the information. I call it, not failure. I call it feedback. When we fail, it's really feedback."
3. Know why you win. "I try to get people to concentrate on why they win. I'll ask a young person when they come off the court, 'Why did you win?' I'll spend a lot more time on that than why they lost because it starts to build up the self-confidence that you need to understand your strengths. If I can get someone to understand why they win and what makes them tick, their chances of winning are so much greater."
Williams' 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 win against No. 2 seed Azarenka marks her 17th Grand Slam singles title. At age 31, she is one championship shy of the 18 won by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. In the history of women's tennis, King says, "Serena's the greatest player ever."
As for King, she's earned her title as "the single most important female athlete of the 20th century." That is what PBS, which tonight premieres an American Masters documentary about King, calls the woman who broke extraordinary barriers in sports, business and equal rights for women.
What is the No. 1 trait that has led to your success?
Warren Buffett's is focus—according to Alice Schroeder, author of the Buffett bio Snowball, who spoke, as I did, at a corporate event at the U.S. Open last week.
Getting ready to go on stage, I thought, what's my key trait? Curiosity, I guess. It keeps a journalist alive and open to ideas.
So I was innately curious to interview Billie Jean MOREPatricia Sellers - Sep 6, 2011 11:04 AM ET
"It's a stage. I'm a performer and I love to perform and being in front of the crowds and hearing them cheer for me."
-- Tennis star Serena Williams in today's Wall Street Journal story about her and sister Venus' renewed commitment to the game. Last year, hours after losing to a pair of little-known Chinese players in the doubles quarterfinals at the Banglaore Open in March, the sisters decided they'd MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - Aug 28, 2009 3:08 PM ET
"When you go out there and compete, absolutely bring all of yourself. Pay the price."
-- Ilana Kloss, CEO and commissioner of World TeamTennis. Over breakfast this morning with Kloss and Karen Durkin, the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, we chatted about the topic of today's post on Postcards: how to stretch your talent. Kloss, who once ranked No. 1 in doubles tennis worldwide, and Durkin, a former standout swimmer MOREPatricia Sellers - Oct 21, 2008 5:51 PM ET
"Who do I prefer? I prefer the trophy, that's what I prefer."
-- Roger Federer, when asked whom he wanted to play in the U.S. Open final. He's facing British upstart Andy Murray today at 5 p.m.
Billie Jean King, our host last Thursday when we watched Federer beat Gilles Muller in the quarterfinal, told us she believes that Federer is the best tennis player ever--even though he recently slipped to No. MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - Sep 8, 2008 3:31 PM ET
On Thursday, Pattie and I had one of those "pinch yourself" moments. We were invited to the World TeamTennis suite at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows. World TeamTennis is a professional and amateur co-ed tennis league created by Billie Jean King. Translation: We we were guests of King at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
While these circumstances alone are awe-inspiring, what made the experience truly special was MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - Sep 5, 2008 1:19 PM ET
Keeping it brief today. Jessica and I are heading to the U.S. Open. Ilana Kloss, the CEO of World TeamTennis, invited us. We're hoping Billie Jean King, who co-founded and helps run WTT, is with us too. Btw, check out BJK's Guest Post -- and a piece I wrote about her odd connections to some of Fortune's Most Powerful Women.
Speaking of MPWomen, did you see the Republican convention last night? Sarah MOREPatricia Sellers - Sep 4, 2008 12:35 PM ET
Times are tough these days, and from where I sit this is not a moment to do anything halfway. As my good friend Holly Hunter once said to me, we are now faced with situations where we have to "bring all of ourselves to everything we do."
Regardless of the instability of the economy, the flatness of the housing market, the rising price of gas, and the current value of the dollar, MOREPatricia Sellers - Aug 25, 2008 12:50 PM ET
"I'm just trying to do everything I can to get as close to him as possible. But in general, I think you can maintain a rivalry while admiring your rival. When I play him, it's a special motivation to play better."
--Tennis star Rafael Nadal answering reader questions in Time Magazine. The "him" Nadal refers to is Roger Federer, whose four-and-a-half year reign at the top will end on Monday when MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - Aug 22, 2008 3:32 PM ET
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