PARIS, France - Upsets are rare for a reason. Sustaining a high level of play while keeping nerves at bay is a tricky proposition when facing a favorite on the Grand Slam stage - but don't tell that to Kristina Mladenovic, Anna Schmiedlova, Garbiñe Muguruza or Taylor Townsend.
In case you missed the early action Paris, those four women seized opportunities to make their mark on the 2014 French Open, taking out their heavily favored opponents and shaking up the Roland Garros draw in the process. Mladenovic started the trend with a three set win over No.2 seed Li Na in the opening round. Schmiedlova struck next, beating Venus Williams 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the second round. A short time later, Muguruza eliminated Venus' top-seeded sister Serena in a stunning 6-2, 6-2 rout. Finally, it was 205th-ranked Townsend who finished off 20th seed Alizé Cornet, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
Here are the tips we can take from their conquests:
Play the ball, not your [famous] opponent. As Muguruza put it: "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I have to consider that Serena is a player just like any player, that I can play good tennis, and I can win." Before Townsend's victory over Cornet, her coach Kamau Murray told her to think of her opponent as "just another face." Fans may be well aware of the star status of a top seed, but in order to execute an upset, the lesser-known player must consider herself an equal, always remembering that the ball has no ranking.
Use the crowd to your advantage. Following her win over 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na, French-born Mladenovic wasted no time in thanking the boisterous home crowd for the help, saying she knew "it could make the difference." But fan support can work both ways. Townsend, a former ITF junior No.1 from Chicago, faced France's top female player in Cornet. The hostile environment forced the 18-year-old to kick her intensity into overdrive. "I was just really trying to focus on myself, and focus on what I was doing to get me to that point," she said.
Keep your emotions in check. Anna Schmiedlova did not panic when she lost a quick first set to seven-time Grand Slam champion, Venus Williams. Perhaps more importantly, she didn't panic when she blew two match points in the third set, proceeding to calmly serve out the match at 5-4. Unless your name is Muguruza, momentum shifts are all but guaranteed when facing a proven champion. Whether an underdog is leading throughout or hanging on for dear life, the trick is to steady volatile nerves and emotions long enough to get the job done.
Have a strategy and stick to it. Adhering to a game plan, no matter how clear-cut, is tougher than it looks when a player is shooting for the biggest win of her career. Those who can block out distractions most effectively will be the ones heading home with a victory. Muguruza has admired Serena Williams' game since childhood, research that came in handy in her 64-minute dismantling of the World No.1. "When you watch someone play, you know exactly what you need to do to defeat her," the Spaniard said. "But once you are there on the court, you need to do it, and today I did. My plan was to be very aggressive and I think I did that very well."
Believe. Melanie Oudin's adidas shoes said it best during her unlikely run to the US Open quarterfinals in 2009. Any player who hopes to upset a big name on the biggest stage must be confident in her ability to play her best against the best. "I just tried to believe in myself, working really hard every day to achieve and believe where Li Na is and try one day to be up there," Mladenovic said.
Mentally move ahead. Often the most difficult challenge for post-upset players is maintaining momentum in the next round and beyond. This can be the difference between one shocking victory and a legitimate career breakthrough. Each woman deserves a few hours to celebrate, but then it will be time to focus on the next hurdle. Which player will capitalize on her big win? We'll soon find out.
Blair Henley is a tennis journalist and teaching professional based in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work on TennisNow.com.