Whether you are watching the NBA basketball playoffs or not, it is worth sharing this small collection of statistics with a tennis-loving audience:
The Boston Celtics, through two completed and successful rounds of the NBA playoffs, have played 12 games, seven at home and five on the road. In the seven home games, the Celtics hit 47 percent of all their shots and 40 percent of all 3-point shots, averaging roughly 111 points per game. In the five road games, the Celtics hit 41 percent of all shots and just 31 percent of all 3-point shots, averaging just under 95 points per game. The Celtics won all seven home games and went 1-4 in their five road games. In the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics went 4-0 at home and 0-3 on the road. Being able to play Game 7 at home mattered a great deal in that series.
I bring this up because — in many situations and contexts, not just tennis — professional athletes encounter marked variances in their performances based on the location of their performance. Sometimes, this is based on weather or atmospheric conditions. For instance, baseball games played in the American city of Denver, Colorado — with very high elevation — will cause balls to travel farther than they would in many other cities. It is harder to pitch and easier to hit in Denver than nearly anywhere else in Major League Baseball’s 30-team competitive universe. It is also true that in some cities where baseball is played, the size of the field is different, which creates unique challenges for pitchers or hitters on a case-by-case basis.
In basketball, however, every court is the same in every American arena: 94 feet long and 50 feet wide, with a basket 10 feet high. Weather is not a factor. The playing surface is not a factor. How well the other team plays might be a factor, but in terms of the mechanics of shooting a basketball, nothing is fundamentally different in a well-lit gymnasium in one city versus another. It is the same sport. Yet, athletes can and do get affected by the change in location all the time.
This brings up Madrid, which is creating typically wacky results yet again. This year, the ATP owns more of those results than the women, but the WTA was more volatile in previous years (specifically, the past three). Without question, the conditions in Madrid are not reflective of the rest of the spring clay season or the other clay tour stops in general. Madrid does play differently, and that is not to be dismissed when factoring in results. Yet, something has to be said in the midst of this conversation about Madrid: As much as conditions might sometimes affect performance, it is still up to the players in the arena to perform. This is still tennis, not squash or cricket or baseball, and the specific techniques an athlete must bring to the court are just as necessary in Madrid as they are in Rome, Paris, and other clay locales on the schedule.
Denis Shapovalov made his win over Milos Raonic look easy on Thursday in Madrid. Yes, I wouldn’t bet on Shapovalov making a deep run in Rome or Paris, but it remains that not every player can play a compatriot (Raonic) who is several years older and exhibit total ease and comfort. Plenty of players would be awed by the occasion — think of another ATP Madrid quarterfinalist, Dusan Lajovic, who had absolutely nothing to offer Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. Shapo’s sharpness reflected a sound mental approach to a big moment for Canadian tennis.
Did Madrid have something to do with the way Shapo’s shots penetrated the court? Probably… but that still can’t change the larger point that Shapovalov had to compete well, which transcends any specific locality or atmosphere. It’s still tennis, still competition, still a constant test of skill and fitness on tour. Shapovalov exhibited growth, whether or not that growth carries through Italy and France in the next month. It is still worth appreciating.
The same goes for the aforementioned Lajovic, who obviously took a huge step forward from Monte Carlo. He had never won a main-draw match at ANY clay-court Masters event. Now he is in the quarterfinals with a legitimate shot at a semifinal spot. Falling behind 4-0 in a final-set breaker against a player of Juan Martin del Potro’s caliber, and then rebounding to win, required a lot of patience and poise.
Did the fact that Delpo was just returning to the tour after five weeks off help Lajovic? Of course it did… but the work Dusan did to stay in the match and not lose heart — in spite of two cringe-inducing mistakes at the start of that final-set breaker — still required a lot of internal growth. Again, that growth was achieved regardless of court speed or altitude.
Karolina Pliskova — as a fellow Czech, Petra Kvitova, has done on previous occasions — has used a big-hitting template in Madrid’s conditions to thrive in Spain. She finally defeated Simona Halep in a regular tour match (1-6 overall heading into Thursday, her one win being in Fed Cup in 2016) to reach the Madrid semifinals.
Once again, did the way Madrid clay plays have a role in shaping this match? Very likely so… but Pliskova still had to do the work needed to serve lights-out (70 percent with her aggressive delivery) and crack the ball with a level of quality Halep had not seen in two years. The place where the victory was forged probably contributed to the win, but the player had to do the work, and Pliskova put in the hard yards.
Do any of these results have relevance heading into Paris? Pliskova has advanced her position among the Roland Garros WTA favorites, while the ATP examples probably contain less significance in relationship to the 2018 edition of Roland Garros. They might hold more value in future years. Yet, those answers (which will vary from one person to the next) are secondary to the larger point of this column: While conditions and climates can affect performance in sports, the person within — the mind tasked with getting out of the body’s way — still has to do the work.
The specifics of context and circumstance do matter — if you have read my commentaries for any length of time, you know how much I emphasize those details. Yet, as much as I do value the particularities which surround tennis matches, it is also true that achievements aren’t handed to athletes. They have to step forward and take them. We shouldn’t blow the size of an athlete’s achievement out of proportion with a tsunami of hyperbole, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore achievements forged in unique circumstances, either.
Tennis is still tennis — Shapo, Lajovic and Pliskova have all earned their results and plaudits this week in Madrid.