Emily Bazelon Interviews Her Old Tennis Nemesis, 39-Year-Old Pro Lisa Raymond

The stadium scene.
April 10 2013 7:15 AM

The Best Tennis Player I Ever Saw

Catching up with 39-year-old pro Lisa Raymond, who destroyed me on the court when I was 12 and she was 9.

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EMILY: I want to ask you about how you stay mentally tough. Why do you think you’re such a strong competitor, and why have you been able to keep that up?

LISA: I just loved sports growing up. Everything and anything. Basketball, throwing the football with my dad. When my parents saw I had pretty good hand-eye coordination and could hit a tennis ball, they invested in lessons and clinics. They made sacrifices, my whole family did, to travel with me to tournaments. And I always felt like I was good at it, and I loved competing, and I love doing well. That’s why I’m out here: I love winning.

People say sometimes it has to be about the process, about the practicing, but for me, it’s not. I had a phase where I told myself, it’s OK if I lose. But I’m a perfectionist. At 39 years old, I go out and practice, I go to the gym. I do it to win tennis matches. A few years ago, I let myself go a little. I was out of shape, having personal issues, and I had a rude awakening on the court. I had to decide to recommit myself to fitness and to the sport. I was a shell of myself at that moment. Now I’m happy again, and I’m playing well—it’s been a good last couple years.

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EMILY: What do you think about when you’re playing a match, like before a big point? Are you thinking about where your feet are, and your body, and the ball? Or are you in that Zen space athletes describe—which I have to say, I have no idea what that feels like.

LISA: I’m not Zen. I’ve never done visualization, like, OK it’s match point, what will I do on this serve? That’s never been my thing. For me, it has to be much more tangible. I’m a person who needs to touch and feel. If I feel good on the practice court, if I’m hitting the ball well, that will translate into playing a good match.

EMILY: To me, that’s an amazing and actually inconceivable idea. I am a head case in matches. I really think that if I lived my life the way I compete in tennis matches, I’d be a homeless person.

LISA: You don’t play as well in matches as you do in practice?

Lisa Raymond of the USA plays a forehand during her doubles match at the Sony Open.
Lisa Raymond at the Sony Open in March

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

EMILY: I get so nervous I blow the big points. And a lot of other points, too. I get tight, and I can’t really breathe. And this is for matches that don’t really mean anything! How do you not do that?

LISA: Oh, I’ve blown plenty of big points. I’ve had matches where I’m in knots. But through the years, you learn to deal with that on the match court. I have a routine before a match: I try to break a sweat beforehand, so I’m really warm when I get out there.

When I get nervous, I remind myself to keep moving, and to keep going for it. I play my best tennis when I’m aggressive. Singles or doubles. When I’m going for serves, returns, coming to net. I’ve always told myself when I’m serving a match out, or match point, I have to keep doing what I did to get there, and that means being very aggressive. The more times you’re in that position, the more you can rely on experience.

EMILY: Aha. There were record numbers of players older than 30 in last year's Grand Slams. Is that about experience?

LISA: For me it is. I can tell myself: I’ve been in this position hundreds of times. I’ve come out on top. It’s something I’ve done since I was 7 years old. I’m used to it, and I’m comfortable. It’s like just knowing if you do right things you’ll win.

EMILY: Huh, right. You know you can come through—what a concept.

LISA: Without question.

EMILY: I guess that goes back to how you love competition.

LISA: Right. You don’t?

EMILY: I dread it.

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