A spark — something which ignites, something which enlivens or brightens, something which makes life or its substances less dormant and more real.
We all look for a spark in some way at some point in our lives. Even if we have settled into a comfortable rhythm and a general way of being which works for us, we encounter ruts, potholes, valleys, periods of stagnation. The larger whole of our personal or professional lives might be good, but in specific moments or periods of time, the need for refreshment and rejuvenation is undeniable.
Step outside of tennis for a brief moment to appreciate the reality of competition, which can be extended to life itself: In ice hockey, a team leading by two goals late in the third period can’t simply huddle along the boards and trap the puck for five minutes so that the opposing team can’t get a shot on goal. American-style football is the one North American sport in which a team can fairly reasonably “run the clock out.” To an extent, a good soccer team can knock the ball around to play keep-away from the opposition, given the size of the pitch. Yet, in most sports — just like life — human beings can’t “run the clock out” on their problems. They can’t expect that when a generally strong career or a largely positive life encounters an inevitable moment of difficulty, they can passively allow the storm to pass.
Yes, it is true that in certain contexts, very successful people face problems not of their own making or beyond their control. To this extent, human beings sometimes have to allow other people to change, and merely stay the course. Yet, in most cases, the problems or puzzles we need to solve in our work, our relationships, or our aspirational endeavors are matters we have to take charge of. We often have to find a bolt of inspiration, a drink of refreshment, a different way of seeing. We need to find something which enables us to take a good formula and tweak it or adjust it in order to escape a rut.
This is what a spark is.
Saturday afternoon at the Crandon Park Tennis Center, Agnieszka Radwanska might have found it, but we won’t know for sure until later in this tennis season.
It is certainly true that Simona Halep — who was not very comfortable in her brief stay at the Miami Open — was far from her best in Saturday’s third-round match on the central stadium court. Halep littered the stat sheet with errors, especially in the early stages of the second set, when she couldn’t keep the ball on the court on crosscourt shots meant to go for the sideline. She repeatedly missed those attempts, which made her overcompensate and hit to the middle third of the court. No one should deny that Halep played a relatively poor match.
Yet, Radwanska has spent the past 26 months since her 2016 run to the Australian Open semifinals in an uncomfortable place. If Halep struggled at this one tournament — snapping a run of semifinal-or-better results in 2018 — Radwanska has been struggling for whole seasons. Going into the Halep match, she lacked a top-five win since 2016. Once a mainstay of the WTA top 10, she carried a No. 30 seed into the Miami Open.
Decline, erosion, irrelevance — those haunting words for an accomplished tennis player all hovered above Radwanska and her career. One could very fairly say that players with Radwanska’s resume — a Wimbledon final and four other major semifinals with a large pile of quarterfinals — shouldn’t be written off at age 29 after a few difficult years. Consider how Venus Williams (albeit dealing with health problems, not purely a tennis-based decline) struggled in her early 30s before noticeably raising her game in recent seasons. It is indeed possible for players to struggle later in their careers and still produce a second or third act, a revival which stirs the soul.
That is what Radwanska is seeking.
Maybe she will get dismantled by Victoria Azarenka (who appears to be reassembling the pieces of her game in her own WTA restoration attempt) in the fourth round on Monday in Key Biscayne. Maybe this Halep win won’t have that long a shelf life. Nevertheless, one ought to acknowledgee this: When any player in Radwanska’s position — dying of thirst in the tennis desert — scores a victory over the World No. 1 as she did against Halep on Saturday, the moment might not immediately lead to a huge run in the current tournament (Miami), but it can certainly plant a seed of hope which takes root and blossoms in the course of the tennis season.
Maybe Aga Radwanska won’t stack an Azarenka win on top of her conquest of Halep, and maybe this match was more about Halep’s mistakes than Radwanska’s brilliance. Those are fair — albeit debatable — conclusions to reach at the moment.
Say this much, however: Radwanska has given herself reason to believe again. She has authored the kind of feat which makes it a lot more reasonable to think that her career can find a new springtime in these days before Easter. She has forged the confidence-building accomplishment which is needed to escape the rut… and find the spark which can set her on the right course.