The cycle of life. The flow of nature. The turning of the leaves. The changing of the seasons. There are general rhythms to life, and there are just as surely general rhythms in sport. These patterns are not the same for everyone; people operate at different speeds and are their own individuals. Some athletes might be quick studies. Others need a normal learning period. Still others might require three or four extra years — into their late 20s — before they feel fully at home on the court. Individuals carry differences, but on a larger level, the rhythms of sport are very rarely escaped. Monica Seles would be such an example. She mastered tennis in her teens, rose to a place of prominence, and then got stabbed. Events and realities one would loosely refer to as “normal” could not easily (if ever) apply to her tennis journey.
For most players, however, the patterns of success and failure, growth and evolution, are hard to avoid. One such player is Elise Mertens, who is dealing with something common on the WTA Tour these days: Losing after winning.
Jelena Ostapenko after Wimbledon. Sloane Stephens last fall and into this year in Australia. Madison Keys since her run to the U.S. Open final. Angelique Kerber throughout 2017. These and other players tasted great success at a height not previously experienced and then went through tough times. This doesn’t mark them as deficient tennis players, merely as players who made a statement which resounded through the WTA locker room and became bigger targets for the rest of the tour. Naturally, it was harder to win matches after hitting the big time. This is as normal a part of tennis as Rafael Nadal winning on clay or Venus Williams winning a complicated match after numerous twists and turns.
The drama of tennis — and of sport in general — is found in many manifestations, a central one being the always intriguing question: Many players inhabit a similar situation, but which one(s) will take the forward step after being knocked back?
Ostapenko and Stephens (Miami) and Kerber (Australia) have all rebounded to varying degrees after being punched in the mouth.
What about Elise Mertens?
She made the semifinals at the Australian Open this year, putting together the most sustained and flowing tennis of her life. She dismantled Elina Svitolina (who was physically compromised) in the quarterfinals and pushed Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals before losing a second-set tiebreaker. The Belgian had gained attention from the rest of the tour. The labor of entrenching oneself as a top player had only just begun.
Then came a very familiar series of events for young players trying to gain a greater foothold on tour: Mertens lost a bunch of matches.
In Doha, Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami — four separate tournaments — Mertens failed to win more than one match. The tour took notice of her. Coaches did their scouting reports. Opponents saw her as a high-value win, something different from her pre-Melbourne identity. She struggled.
This might not have been expected, but it is certainly predictable when seen in a larger context. Now begins Mertens’ attempt to shake hardcourt dust (metaphorically) from her tennis kit and embrace the red dust of European clay. Mertens scored a hard-earned win over Daria Gavrilova at last year’s French Open and lost to Venus in the third round. Being able to dig out a couple of matches represented a positive Roland Garros campaign for the 22-year-old, who is certainly on schedule in her career if not slightly ahead of it. The struggles in the Middle East and the United States over the past two months do not need to be seen as a step back for Mertens, but as a typical flow in which big achievements lead to a bigger bulls-eye on one’s back.
Mertens must remember that while she is playing opponents even more determined to beat her than before, she just has to hit the ball bigger and more cleanly than they do, putting herself in position to counter the tactics opponents throw at her.
Elise Mertens now knows what it is like to be a target on tour. Clay season gives her a chance to reset the dial and engage in target practice with her shots. The shift of seasons offers Mertens a chance to bounce back from a winter which taught her how a tennis career changes after making a major-tournament semifinal.