Dana Mathewson (L) and Emmy Kaiser shake hands after their bronze-medal match at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 28, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Wheelchair tennis is about a lot more than physical ability. Especially when the opponent is your doubles partner, who you are going to be competing with later that same day.
Dana Mathewson and Emmy Kaiser faced off against one another for bronze in singles at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019. Mathewson won in straight sets, 6-3 and 7-5, to come away with her first-ever Parapan American Games medal.
Mathewson credits her success in the match to her focus on mental preparation.
“I’ve been working a lot with a sports psychologist. That was something I knew in my game I’d been lacking,” she said. “Tennis is 30 to 40 percent mental. You’re playing tennis for minutes at a time and then you’re on the bench on your own, sitting and thinking about, What am I going to do next?”
After a bad serve or a poor performance on a point, it’s easy for a player to get down on oneself. Singles tennis is an isolated sport. The player doesn’t have contact with their coach or any teammates for the entire duration of the match.
The bronze-medal match in Lima, for example, lasted nearly an hour and 20 minutes. In the past, this was plenty of time for Mathewson to get into her own head.
“There’s a lot of time to either filter in doubt and negative thoughts, or there’s a lot of time to tell yourself what to do next,” she said. “And that’s really what I’ve been working on - the positive reinforcement side and planning. I’m really happy that I was able to come back today because of that hard work that I’ve been doing. It’s really nice that I’ve seen it pay off now.”
Mathewson came from behind in both sets to achieve the victory. She feels this challenge will only serve her better down the road.
“If I’m ever down, I can tell myself ‘I came back in a high-pressure match before, I can do it again.' It will really pay off in the future, too,” Mathewson explained.
Mathewson and Kaiser are also wheelchair tennis doubles partners. The pair is guaranteed to compete for a medal after clinching a spot in the semifinal match set to take place on Wednesday evening.
In addition to their partnership, the two are friends, which adds yet another mental barrier to competition.
“I’m a very competitive person. I think that helps me out there because I’m able to switch off the fact that you’re my friend, and I just want to beat you in that moment,” Mathewson said. “I think that’s what you kind of need to have, especially since you don’t have a team out there rallying with me. It’s like when you go to work in the morning, you just have that hat on, and that’s what I did today.”
In doubles tennis, a player has to be extremely familiar with their partners strengths and weaknesses. If the players complement each other correctly, the pair is able to compete at its highest level. That leads to a unique dynamic when facing one another in singles, but Mathewson didn’t focus too much on the information she knew about Kaiser coming in.
“In the past I might have thought too much about other people and what they’re really good at, and, now, I focus on me, and what I bring to the table."
With singles competition now over for U.S. women's wheelchair tennis players, Mathewson is excited to focus on her deeper passion: doubles.
“Doubles is my favorite. You get that extra space on the court, and it allows you to do a lot of fun shots… I’m excited to play doubles,” she said. “I think that’s where I shine a bit more than singles.”
Playing alongside a friend makes it extra special for Mathewson as well.
“Emmy and I haven’t played together for years, so this is a reunion of sorts. I’m really excited to play with her.”