Viktor Frankl processed his experience — and survival — of the Holocaust in the seminal and endlessly essential book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl explored the human struggle to find morsels of meaning even when everything is bleak and dark and miserable, and a person’s entire existence is colored and shattered by humankind’s inhumanity to itself.
In the deepest, most spiritual sense, all of life is meaningful. Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and spiritual writers such as Eckhart Tolle have talked and written a lot about putting the attention, focus and care of one’s mind to the simplest, ordinary, everyday acts. Tolle is fond of emphasizing the need to live “in the now,” to relentlessly embrace the present moment in life and not be tethered either to the past or the future. On that deeper level, yes, all of life has meaning, every last bread crumb of it.
Yet, in sports — tennis merely being one of many forms of athletic competition — the desire to find meaning in everything doesn’t apply in the same way. It is true that the POTENTIAL for a meaningful occurrence always exists, but the reality of meaning always existing is less solid and substantial.
When I discuss “meaning” in a sports-specific context, I am not referring to the absolutes which accompany results. Yes, Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori earned more money as a result of their first-round match wins on Monday at the Monte Carlo Masters. Yes, Nole and Kei gained another match to play this week, which they both need as they try to regain form on the road to Roland Garros and beyond. Yes, they get to play different opponents and confront more match-play situations. It is better to have those opportunities than not. No one disputes these small-scale assertions of basic fact.
However, in terms of assigning higher and more layered levels of meaning to these (at a certain level) inherently valuable victories, there just isn’t much meat to be found on the bone.
Sports analysts and commentators often try to attach grander meanings to events. The impulse is not necessarily wrong so much as it easily becomes excessive and, at times, reflexive. Sure, plenty of matches and sports results of all kinds DO point to a bigger meaning. This match here liberated a player’s confidence (think of Caroline Wozniacki over Jana Fett at the Australian Open this year), or that match over there represented a dark moment the player never truly recovered from (David Nalbandian losing a two-set lead in the 2006 Australian Open semifinals against Marcos Baghdatis). Of course matches constantly reshape the arcs of careers and hold profound meaning in the life and workings of a sport and its theaters of competition.
Yet, not all matches own such significance. They contain the potential to affect the trajectory of a tournament, a surface-specific swing, or a season, or any or all of the above in a larger combination, but potential doesn’t always translate into reality.
This has to be kept in mind after watching Nishikori beat an imploding Tomas Berdych, and after watching Djokovic cruise past Dusan Lajovic on Monday in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.
Could these matches contain meaning? Sure they could. It is not as though the door has been slammed shut on such a question, with the answer already being “no.” The more precise point is that they don’t yet have that level of meaning.
Nishikori probably needs to win two more matches this week to show that he is genuinely and substantially improving — beating Daniil Medvedev in the upcoming round of 32, on clay, probably doesn’t represent an indicator of being “back.” Djokovic will next face 2017 Madrid quarterfinalist and Marrakech champion Borna Coric, whose patient game is made for clay. If he can grind out a hard-fought victory, yes, then we can begin to attach some meaning to this Monte Carlo tournament in the context of Djokovic’s bid to reclaim tennis prominence.
Right now, though, questions and notions of larger meaning are best left unanswered. There is no grand “yes” or “no,” just the need to wait another day or two or three. Sometimes, the best answer to the question, “What does a tennis result mean?” is to admit one doesn’t yet know the answer.
Man’s search for meaning on a tennis court doesn’t have to be completely tethered to the present moment.