A week ago, during the Monte Carlo Masters, the subject of underachieving players came up. A tweep asked me about the criteria which inform such an assessment. It’s not an exact science to identify underachievers and separate them from ordinary achievers. Some people quite reasonably identify the mental game as a skill and/or a weapon, which removes a lot of underachievers from a list. I don’t adhere to that tennis worldview because I agree with Mary Carillo’s memorable way of summarizing the mental side of this sport: “Get out of your own way.”
Tennis players and other elite athletes are asked to demonstrate their enormous physical prowess. This isn’t mindless physical activity, but it IS an endeavor in which the human person can’t think too much. The mind isn’t absent, but it is quiet… which allows the body to do what it needs to do in an instinctive, explosive, powerful way. Accordingly, a lot of athletes aren’t necessarily more skilled than their peers; they’re merely more disciplined at calming and regulating their minds in important moments. This is the intersection between the athlete and the person. The athlete might be very talented, but the person doesn’t allow the athlete to flourish. I prefer the separation of the mental game from a collection of skills. I like to refer to it as an interior discipline which is not particular to tennis.
Who is more talented at hitting a tennis ball — Gilles Simon or Martin Klizan? Note the very specific way that question is phrased. This is not about who has had the better career or who is an objectively better player. This is about natural athletic ability. Klizan is the correct answer, and it’s not that close, in my opinion.
When you see Klizan get comfortable on the ground as he was in the second set of Friday’s Barcelona Open quarterfinal loss to Rafael Nadal, you don’t have to think long or hard to realize that Klizan can crush a tennis ball in ways Simon can only dream of. Klizan has an outrageous combination of power and touch which on the rare occasion it comes together, is something to see.
Yet, as we know, Simon has hundreds more victories than Klizan. He has made a Masters final, a number of Masters semifinals, two major quarterfinals, and a large stack of major fourth rounds, whereas Klizan has never gone past the second round of a Masters and has reached the fourth round of a major only once, the third round only three times (including his fourth round result). Simon is a more disciplined, consistent, reliable player. He is patient and steadfast. He fights for everything he gets.
Klizan is none of those things — he is not disciplined or consistent or reliable. He is notoriously impatient, and he doesn’t stay the course when things get tough. Are those tennis attributes, though? They strike me as being liabilities in any sport or any field of endeavor. Being impatient or inconsistent isn’t particular to tennis. Any worker — any athlete — has to be disciplined in his or her mind. If that doesn’t exist, success will not be sustained.
This is why underachievement, to me, is more pervasive than others might think. Klizan will regularly be able to generate more power on a groundstroke than Simon. He will constantly be more intimidating from the back of the court. He will enduringly have the skill level to take the racquet out of an opponent’s hands. Klizan has so many exciting, enticing tools as someone who can hit a tennis ball very hard.
So why does he have fewer than 130 wins at age 28? Why has he NEVER won two consecutive main-draw matches at a Masters 1000 event? Why has he not won consecutive main-draw matches at a major tournament since the 2014 French Open? This is what it means to be an underachiever: The talent is there. The natural resources were not in question. The ability to bother top players — recall a match against Andy Murray at Roland Garros? — has been a feature of Klizan’s game. Heck, he just beat Novak Djokovic in Barcelona. He has, on multiple occasions, raised his game and played up to the level of his competition. Yet, his overall portfolio of results indicates that when facing far lesser lights, he usually loses.
This is what it means to be an underachiever: Martin Klizan has won ATP tournament championship matches against Fabio Fognini, Gael Monfils, and Pablo Cuevas (plus Daniel Gimeno-Traver). Those are not cream-puff victims in important matches. Klizan is 5-0 in ATP tournament finals. You can see — and have seen — the talent kick into gear. You have seen that one good match against a top player is not entirely an aberration or a completely isolated incident. You have seen other occasions akin to Friday in Barcelona, when Klizan led Rafael Nadal by a 5-3 margin in the second set; had three set points on serve; and didn’t win the set.
Such is the nature of an underachiever: This kind of player demonstrates a high level of talent, puts him(her)self in a good position often enough for others to notice, and consistently falls short of the intended goal. Victories — or at least battles in final sets — appear to be realistic possibilities, only for the player to fall apart and not earn the chance to gain glory. It’s true that Klizan still would have been a noticeable underdog had he pushed Nadal to a third set, but the fact that he couldn’t even get there after taking a 5-3 lead reinforces every lamentation about his career.
It’s not that he can’t play well; Martin Klizan can look untouchable at times. The problem with Klizan his how quickly he cedes the battles of minds and wills. That’s not a reflection of how well he hits a tennis ball; Ana Ivanovic was a tremendous ballstriker, but she simply couldn’t learn to quiet her mind in meaningful moments. The evident display of what she was capable of on the court very rarely matched her results and collective profile. That’s what underachievement feels like.
That’s what Martin Klizan embodies. Any attempt to grasp underachievement in men’s tennis — or in tennis at any level — could genuinely begin with him. Other players might own similar claims, but it’s hard to ignore the extent to which Klizan has failed to get out of his own way.
Image taken from zimbio.com