STANFORD, Calif. -- After earning a hard-fought victory over No. 22 Sybille Bammer on Saturday in the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University, Sania Mirza moved up to 31st in the WTA rankings, matching a career high (her goal is to crack the top 20).
When asked after the match what separates players in the top 10 from the rest, the 20-year-old's response was immediate and blunt: "Nothing."
Is she right?
When discussing top players, one word repeatedly surfaces: confidence. ESPN analysts Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver reached four Grand Slam singles finals between them, but never won none. By dint of such proximity, each is able to shed light on what that elusive word means.
"Some people are confident and win. Others win and get confidence," Fernandez said. "Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are in the first category. I was in the second. Most of all, confidence is the belief that you'll come through."
Shriver added: "Sometimes confidence comes from experience -- and other times it's a lack of experience that can help a player not be aware of how genuinely important a situation is and so she's able to play freely."
Yet how does something as ethereal as confidence build? After all, any player good enough to crack the top 100 has earned many a tough victory. Watch a top-10 player practice with a player ranked No. 80 and it's hard to discern much technical difference. But as Bammer said, "The difference between [players ranked between] 10 and 30 is much greater than the difference between 30 and 60."
One useful approach in understanding confidence might be to see each match as a personal narrative. Within that story line, no matter if she wins or loses, each player is a protagonist in a plot of twists and turns that pretty much equal out. After all, in just about any match, each player wins at least 45-50 percent of the points.
But maybe confidence comes with how each player plays the big points and the lessons she takes away from them. Having won the first set against Bammer, 6-2, Mirza served at 4-3 deuce -- and proceeded to play two horrific points, double-faulting and hitting a ball so short a club player could have struck a winner off it. Dismayed by her inability to get to 5-3, Mirza's spirits dropped, giving Bammer the chance to step in and win the set, 7-5. Though Mirza would eventually win the third set 6-3, afterwards she spoke less with the confidence of a self-possessed victor and more with the relief of someone who'd emerged unscathed from a fender-bender.
In the night's second semifinal, Anna Chakvetadze and Daniela Hantuchova waged a similar up-and-down match. Despite winning the first set in a tiebreak, Hantuchova hardly seemed encouraged and rapidly went down 3-0 in the second. Serving at 3-2, Chakvetadze double-faulted a staggering four times. Despite all the opportunities, Hantuchova was unable to capitalize. At deuce, she whacked two easy forehand returns long to go down 4-2. In the next game, at 15-30, Hantuchova committed the mental blunder of attempting a drop shot on a very big point -- a ball that went right into the bottom of the net. On the next point, Hantuchova double-faulted. It was as if she'd misplaced all the well-written pages that had given her a lead. Rapidly, Chakvetadze won the last two sets, 6-3, 6-2.
The great players appear able to keep two ideas in their heads at once: play one point wisely and see your efforts as part of a bigger story. "I knew what I had to do on a big point," three-time Wimbledon champion John Newcombe once said, "but then I could see how it fit into what I was doing the entire match. You're spending a long time out there."
The next day, Chakvetadze disposed of Mirza 6-3, 6-2 in less than an hour. Mirza seemed hardly able to string two shots together, her strokes a series of random bullets. On the other hand, having now won back-to-back events in Cincinnati and Stanford, the 20-year-old Russian is now ranked sixth in the world, an ascent that surely must mean she has appropriate confidence. Yet Chakvetadze looked woefully outgunned in losing at Roland Garros to Sharapova and Wimbledon to Michaella Krajicek.
Some people are confident and win. Others win and get confidence. Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are in the first category. I was in the second. Most of all, confidence is the belief that you'll come through.
Mary Joe Fernandez
"Confidence is something you can't work on," Shriver said. "You can't just go out there and say, 'I'm going to work on my confidence.' You have to approach it from different angles."
One vital approach to building confidence occurs away from competition. Players like Martina Navratilova and Justine Henin are among the champions who put in ample time on fitness both on and off the court, in essence translating all that physical effort into the cloak of mental fortitude. "If you're fit," said Navratilova at this year's French Open, "you know you can be out there all day, not be impatient and hit the ball as well in third set as you did in the first set. You know you've put in the work and that gives you confidence."
But then again, if it's simply a matter of putting in the most roadwork, is the player who practices and competes the most the best? Not necessarily. Heading into the Australian Open and Wimbledon, neither Serena nor Venus Williams appeared particularly match tough. But each competes with extraordinary confidence, engaging in a willful brand of self-delusion that provides the rocket fuel necessary for success -- and, of course, brought each of them those respective, precious titles.
The truth is that identifying what separates players from one another is an impossible task. Results may resolve the plot, but telling the story is a whole other matter. Just after losing to Mirza, Bammer noted that, "it's always different -- mental, fitness, tactics."
Or as Hantuchova said following her loss to Chakvetadze, "Does winning build confidence or does confidence build winning? That is a good question. My, it's pretty late at night, don't you think?"
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.