Matt Zemek

When we discuss tennis or any other sport, we might often feel the need to say that an athlete or team almost won. This particularly refers to underdogs who are playing with house money and have nothing to lose. They can be free and not suffer consequences if they fall short. “Almost winning” feels like an achievement in itself, and commentators don’t disagree with that notion.

What does it mean to play with “house money,” though — to have a coin you can throw in a fountain? Does it refer to ANY underdog in ANY circumstance, or is it more particular than that? I am not going to insist that there is only one legitimate answer, but I WILL indeed insist that one answer is a lot more convincing to me than others.

Having “house money” — being in a situation free of negative consequences — could reasonably be viewed as a circumstance belonging to any underdog. However, I don’t think it should be seen in that light.

The two showcase ATP quarterfinals on Friday in Rome fit neatly into my conception of what it does — and doesn’t — mean to play with house money.

It is true that Fabio Fognini and Kei Nishikori were not expected to win their respective quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It is also true that Fognini and Nishikori exist on very different planes of achievement and reputation. They also own different reasons for not achieving at higher levels in their careers — Fognini being petulant and unwilling to battle, Nishikori being quite able to battle but falling victim to injury and losing small amounts of critical points in important matches. In so many ways, Fog and Kei are different tennis creatures, but they do share two basic similarities, no matter how different the underlying REASONS for those similarities are:

1) They have both achieved less than their talents would suggest they should have achieved by now. Where one sets the bar is up for debate, but they have both left some money on the table.

2) Fog and Kei — in order to achieve at a higher level — have to go through the elite players on tour in big moments. A Masters quarterfinal is not as big as a major quarterfinal, but it still rates as a comparatively important, a potential gateway to a Masters title, which neither man has achieved. Fognini has not even reached a single Masters final.

Heading into Friday, the Fognini-Nadal and Nishikori-Djokovic head-to-heads were remarkably similar in several ways. The win differentials were significant even though a lot of the matches between the players were close. Nadal has been pushed hard several times by Fognini on clay in recent years, and a similar story has unfolded between Kei and Nole, especially in Rome, where Friday’s quarterfinal was contested.

More similarities: Fognini and Nishikori scored their biggest wins over Nadal and Djokovic, respectively, at the U.S. Open. Fognini took advantage of Nadal’s 2015 nadir, while Nishikori springboarded to his only major final by beating Nole in New York four years ago. Yet, those huge wins are conspicuous as aberrations, not as reflecting larger trends. Both men, Fog and Kei, have profoundly struggled to win the handful of points they need to beat Nadal and Djokovic in other big tournaments. Djokovic entered Friday 7-0 against Nishikori at Masters events, Nadal 5-0 against Fognini.

Yes, Fog and Kei were underdogs, but for men who have labored in the vineyard of tennis for many years and are trying to achieve specific breakthroughs, not being expected to win isn’t necessarily an example of being free from pressure or consequence. If anything, the knowledge of having fallen short (especially for Fognini) or the knowledge of having been injured so many times when on the cusp of doing something special (Nishikori) can and do weigh on athletes until they cross those thresholds for the first time.

For a young pup such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, or for an older journeyman such as Dusan Lajovic, there truly isn’t a large amount of pressure to do well. Tsitsipas has ample time to develop and learn about life on tour. Lajovic does not possess the prodigious talent of his peers; he has done well to go as far as he has, whereas Fog’s and Kei’s resumes feel like disappointments by comparison.

That is the essential detail at the heart of “house money” and the freedom from pressure it offers: Players might be underdogs, but if there is a gnawing sense that they haven’t fulfilled various reachable aspirations, there is no house money, only the burden to do better.

That burden was real in Friday’s Roman quarters, where men other than Fognini and Nishikori felt at home.

Anyone can win — and lose — one set in a match. To go back to the beginning of this article, sometimes it is written that an athlete “almost won,” but for Fognini and Nishikori, that is not a happy or positive statement. It merely confers a haunting subtext of “what might have been” upon an athlete starving for a Masters title and a much higher Roland Garros seed or position. Conversely, those of us who are sportswriters or commentators rarely write that an athlete “almost lost.” If the athlete wins, s/he accomplished the objective. Very little weight is assigned to the reality of coming close to a defeat. Almost all of the emphasis (properly) belongs with the fact that the athlete solved a problem and found a way through a thorny thicket.

These two sides of the coin were abundantly evident in Fognini-Nadal and Djokovic-Nishikori.

Anyone can win one set, but after winning first sets, Fognini and Nishikori promptly let down their guard in set two. While Nishikori put up a much better fight and played a much better and more resilient match than Fognini, it remains that both players — against opponents who have tormented them many times — couldn’t win the proverbial handful of points needed to change the conversation and write a different story. Yes, whereas Fognini faded, Nishikori played a lot of sublime tennis in the third set against Djokovic. On many levels, these were different matches from men who have accordingly produced at different levels in their careers. Broadly viewed, Nishikori’s career is a shimmering diamond of nobility compared to what Fognini has produced — all true.

Narrowly viewed, however, it meant EVERYTHING that Djokovic was on the other side of the net for Nishikori. Kei struggles so persistently to win The One Really Big Point against Nole, and that reality maintained rent-free living space inside Kei’s cranium on Friday.

Why mention this? Why go in this direction? Simple: A lot of people very reasonably questioned Djokovic’s ability to win a third set, something he had yet to do in 2018 before this match. Trusting Djokovic to get the job done might have seemed, on its face, to ignore recent history, as was the case in Indian Wells against Taro Daniel or against Martin Klizan in Barcelona. Yet, the act of trusting Djokovic in this match did not occur in a vacuum; it was more a matter of considering the opponent Djokovic was facing.

Djokovic-Nishikori (Nadal-Fognini on a similar level) is an example of how “muscle memory” — or just memory in general, without the muscle — figures prominently in shaping the battle. It’s not as though the underdog can’t play really well and push the favorite. Kei and Fog often do make Nole and Rafa work very hard for match victories. Yet, “muscle memory” — the realization of having done (or not done) something many times in the past — is very hard to shake for either player. Djokovic and Nadal use this to their advantage, while it is a burden for Nishikori and Fognini.

The key word in that last sentence: “burden,” because it shows the absence of house money. This is not a coin one can afford to throw in the fountain.


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