Distract yourself: the key to big wins?

“I get up for the big ones,” Serena Williams said after her Australian Open win.

She and Roger Federer, the men’s champ, grabbed the headlines this weekend, but the most intriguing story to me lies behind–in the fact that the greats who outperformed Down Under have been distracted from their main game lately. Intentionally so. And all for the better.

Justine Henin, for instance, took Williams to three sets in the Open final–the first triple-setter in a Grand Slam women’s final since Wimbledon in 2006. Henin, 27, did so playing in just her second tournament after taking a 20-month sabbatical. The score in the fiercely fought women’s final was 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, and
Williams told the

New York Times
that she had to “man up” to beat Henin.

Interesting term for a woman raising her game. (Don’t you look forward to the day when Federer or whoever inherits his crown as the world’s No. 1 male player says he had to “woman up” to win?) Anyway, Williams, who is No. 1 among women, said that Henin, who was a wild-card entry, took her to the “umpteenth level.” Henin’s game, she said, was “execellent before she left. But you know, I think she’s added a lot to it.”

As for Williams, 28, she has cited the value of taking breaks from the grueling tour to focus on her jewelry and fashion-design businesses.

It’s all about stepping back–which, particularly these days, so many high-achieving women in sports, business and beyond (and some men too) would love to do if only they could be assured a place at the top upon their return. Taking time off, say many who have done it, can provide new vision (seeing the forest for the trees), new perspective (losing is not the end-all), and new agility. That liberation from a single and consuming goal may loosen the body and freshen the mind to, as Williams said, “get up for the big one.”

Remember last September, Kim Clijsters won the 2009 U.S. Open after she took two years off to get married and have a child? The morning after her win, I ran into Billie Jean King at JFK airport. (We were both heading to Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit in San Diego). The legendary King (whom Williams on Saturday tied for total Grand Slam victories, 12) told me that she thought Clijsters’ time off centered her–exactly what she needed to be a champ again.

As for Federer, 28, he has a healthy distraction as well. This weekend win–his fourth Australian Open championship–was his first Grand Slam victory since he became a father of twin girls last summer. Good for him.

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