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Mental coach propels Liudmila Samsonova to Slam-winning confidence levels at US Open
Riding a 13-match winning streak into the second week, Samsonova credits work her work with a sports psychologist for making her ready for a Championship Sunday—sooner rather than later.
Published Sep 03, 2022
WATCH: Samsonova won 10 straight matches and two titles leading into the US Open; that streak is now up to 13.
NEW YORK—Liudmila Samsonova sat in a near-empty press room as Arthur Ashe Stadium shook with energy for Serena Williams, carrying high vibrations of her own.
In the thick of a third set with Ajla Tomljanovic, the 23-time Grand Slam champion was Samsonova’s presumptive next opponent. Eagerly nodding and eagerly affirming each question asked of her, the 23-year-old in turn began fantasizing about what would be the biggest match of her career.
“For sure,” she exclaimed, acknowledging the gravity of challenging Williams on her home court. “But it may be positive. Maybe it could be a great thing for me also.
“My goal it's that they like my style of game, my game,” she added of the assuredly pro-American crowd, undaunted by their reverence for the six-time champion. “I just want to show my game, how I can play. That's the most important thing for me. Doesn't matter if I win or I lose. Doesn't matter. But that I can play on a high level.”
To be fair, Samsonova has already proven she can play on a high level, riding a 13-match, two-title, and 18-set winning streak into a first US Open second week. But after winning her third round against Aleksandra Krunic on much-smaller Court 5, the unseeded Russian by way of Italy was eager to prove her mettle in front of about 40,000 people—and their Queen.
I think that my level now is ready, but I have to be lucky. I have to have a lot of things come together. It’s not everything on me, but I do think I have the total level: mentally, physically, technical. Liudmila Samsonova
“She's very strong, her ball is so strong, but I think I can do more physically,” she said. “I think I'm feeling ready physically, you know, to stay there and to play her balls also.”
Samsonova will still see a strong ball in her next match, but she won’t see Serena: the former world No. 1 took her final bow after three sets with Tomljanovic, who is looking to reach a second straight Grand Slam quarterfinal after reaching Wimbledon’s last eight.
Though her once-guaranteed Ashe debut is suddenly in doubt, it wouldn’t be the first time that the youngster has channeled disappointment into opportunity.
“It was a tough period during Wimbledon and everything,” she said of her inability to compete at the All England Club due to its ban on Russians and Belarusians, “but I had one month and a half for practice. I’m so happy how I used it. Now I see all the improvements.”
Samsonova used those six weeks away from competition to complete a 360-degree overhaul of her game, not only enduring a grueling physical training bloc but also employing a sports psychologist to strengthen her mind.
“I think that the part where I was having more difficulties was when it came to playing all the weeks on the same level,” she explained after eliminating 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez. “I think I had the tennis level and the physical level, but I didn’t have the mental level to do something more consistently.”
Indeed, Samsonova has played streaking tennis in the past—winning 10 matches from her maiden WTA title in Berlin through the fourth round of last year’s Wimbledon—only to suffer a summer letdown saw her only win four matches through the US Open.
“I’m not so happy about the result,” she admitted of this latest streak. “Of course, I’m happy, but it’s more that I like the way I’m playing. That’s what I’m trying to maintain.”
Her high-octane style hinges on an all-but-impenetrable serve, one that has helped her average just under 80% of first serve points in three matches and lay the foundation for an aggressive ground game, striking a total of 70 winners to 64 unforced errors.
“I think that my level now is ready, but I have to be lucky,” she said, clasping her hands for emphasis. “I have to have a lot of things come together. It’s not everything on me, but I do think I have the total level: mentally, physically, technical.”
Perhaps this is the luck of which Samsonova spoke: instead of the Greatest of All Time, she gets a more familiar rival in Tomljanovic, whom she beat at the start of her streak en route to the Citi Open title. But if her renewed mental approach has truly taken root, it may not make much difference.
“I think I’ve learned to stay within my improvements, to focus only on my game and let go of the other emotions.
“But it’s work and it’s not easy,” she caveated. “Maybe tomorrow it won’t work and today it’s working. I need time to be ready to manage every kind of pressure.”
Samsonova may not make it to the big stage on the tournament’s first Sunday; should she sustain this level, she could make it by the second—with all of Ashe Stadium shaking for her.
“Maybe one day,” she beamed, “It will be ‘Lyuda, Lyuda, Lyuda!’”