Matt Zemek

It is true that some people in the sports commentary business get their jollies from knocking certain athletes when they fail. We are likely to see that in the upcoming World Cup. Plenty of people in the United States do not care for James Harden of the Houston Rockets and spent some time knocking him after he lost the NBA Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors. 


Yet, I would dare to say that for most of us who write or talk about sports in a professional capacity, we prefer to write the happy story, the tale of success, the odyssey of redemption. Reporters who attend press conferences generally want to interview a smiling athlete rather than a devastated one. In the locker room, in the interview room, in the places where human beings on both sides of the athlete-writer divide coexist and interact, the desire to have pleasant experiences normally outweighs the desire for soap-operatic drama. Phrased differently, human beings — chiefly those who report on sports as opposed to playing them — would like drama to emerge in a positive way. Writers and commentators don’t want boring matches or boring quotes, but if given a choice between “happy drama” and “ugly drama,” they’ll take the happy drama in almost all instances.


This is all a longer way of saying that while most writing and commentary over the course of a tennis tournament generally focuses on winners, some will focus on the losers… but the focus on losers is rarely meant to beat down the loser. It is true that media outlets (and some of the people who work for them) like to build up athletes so that they can tear them down later, but the above explanation about wanting “happy drama” more than negative drama is meant to emphasize the notion that most of the press doesn’t try to write negative pieces just to kick someone when he is down. 


“Regret” is a misplaced word here, but “sadness” is not too strong a word for the situations in which writers feel they have to tell the unpleasant stories of tennis (or any other sports). There is a winner and loser in every match, and while the winners generally get most of the publicity after a match, telling the full story of a sport demands more. Telling the full story of tennis requires, at least to a degree, a willingness to take note of the careers which go in the wrong direction, not just the ones which soar. Celebrating the successful careers which came to an intersection of uncertainty is made more significant by also appreciating the careers which arrived at a similar crossroads but took the turn down the path which led to a dead end. Taking note of “the agony of defeat” — to borrow the expression from ABC’s Wide World Of Sports on 1970s American television — enables one to cherish “the thrill of victory” even more fully.


This is why, for all of Kevin Anderson’s admirable qualities — very much on display in the past few seasons, and also in evidence in Thursday’s second-round French Open victory — the bigger story from this match is the man he defeated.

While Anderson continues to make gains in this latter stage of his career, Pablo Cuevas needed this match a lot more than Anderson did. Anderson’s successes provide an inspiring story, to be sure, but the failure of Cuevas is more acute. These sentences aren’t written with satisfaction; they are written with the sadness referred to above.


Yet, the story must be told.


The story begins with the 1979 French Open. This was a tournament in which a player who regarded Roland Garros as the most important tennis tournament on his calendar was able to make a career breakthrough.


Victor Pecci came from Paraguay and South America, where clay-court tennis is cherished. Andres Gomez of Ecuador and Gustavo Kuerten, among others, delivered Roland Garros championships to country and continent. Their titles in Paris were career-defining achievements which stamped a seal of completion on their tennis lives. They could know that they had done what they set out to do.


Pecci didn’t win the 1979 French Open, but he came close. He pushed the great Bjorn Borg in a contentious final, and beyond that, he made the final by beating one of the elite players of the era at his peak: Jimmy Connors.


That Pecci victory over Connors in the 1979 French Open semifinals was a surprise because Connors’ all-court excellence figured to be too much for Pecci’s clay-court prowess. While Pecci’s game shined on clay (he was never better than a third-round player at the other three major tournaments), Connors had defeated Borg on green clay to win the 1976 U.S. Open. Connors also owned an essential quality of great players: consistency. His truckload of match wins and tour titles spoke to his ability to unpack his bags anywhere on earth, against nearly every player on a full range of surfaces, and compete well enough to beat less-talented opponents. Pecci might have been having the tournament of his life when he entered that 1979 Roland Garros semifinal, but Connors was built to cool off the surface specialist.


On that day, however, he did not. Pecci’s natural affinity for clay flowed through the match, while Connors was caught off balance. Comfort on a surface trumped Hall of Fame-worthy credentials and a much thicker portfolio of achievements. Passion for a specific kind of tennis, and knowledge about how to play it, carried Pecci to the victory he will always hold close to his heart. A South American had run the full race, going the distance at Roland Garros and gaining the satisfaction of knowing that he made Borg work very hard for yet another trophy in Paris.


With all due respect to Kevin Anderson, he is not Jimmy Connors, a statement no one should have to spend time explaining. This brings us back to Thursday’s round of 64 match in France.


Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay is cut from the same cloth as his South American predecessors. All six of his ATP titles are on clay, and more specifically, in the times of year when only clay-court specialists (minus a few exceptions) play clay events: in the February South American swing and the post-Wimbledon European add-on portion of the clay calendar. Eight of his nine career finals are on clay. He can play well on hardcourts, having made an Indian Wells quarterfinal a year ago, but he clearly fits the definition of a specialist. The importance of that reality: Cuevas doing well at Roland Garros matters more to him than doing well anywhere else in tennis.


One would think that Cuevas, in his early 30s with legitimate and recognizable heft in his groundstrokes, would have at least made a quarterfinal in Paris at this point. 


The sad truth: Cuevas hadn’t done so… and moreover, he hadn’t even made the round of 16 in France. The third round was his ceiling.


Yes, Thursday’s match with Anderson didn’t offer a ticket to the round of 16 or the quarters, but with a subsection of grass-court players in the adjacent part of the bracket, Cuevas figured to be an overwhelming favorite to finally make the round of 16 had he gotten past Anderson. Mischa Zverev has a game tailored to any surface other than clay. Cuevas would have loved to face the older Zverev brother for a chance to make his big career breakthrough.


Anderson — a solid top-10 player, a hard worker, and a man who has polished his game late in his career — did not rate as an easy opponent, but he is no Connors. This was not Pecci-Jimbo in 1979, a match in which the higher-ranked player was one of the game’s elites, expected to handle nearly every opponent on tour in a big moment. 


This was supposed to be a close match, but one in which a man at home on a given surface needed to call forth his resources and get balls back in play against an opponent (Anderson) who had to rely on his serve to carry the day. After Anderson won the first set, Cuevas — who had been applying regular pressure on Anderson’s serve — convincingly won the second set and entered a third-set tiebreaker. The idea that Anderson — who went deep into Madrid (semifinals) and then retired in his first match in Rome — would have enough in the tank to win from two sets to one down on his worst surface was hard to trust. By winning the important points in the third-set breaker, Cuevas would have been able to see the finish line and earn the right to play a fish out of water — Mischa Zverev — for that long-sought round of 16 berth in Paris.


Cuevas — who memorably faltered when leading Gael Monfils in a third-round Roland Garros match in 2015, and who has constantly struggled to handle the “handful of points” which often separate big-match winners from losers in tennis — lost the third-set tiebreaker to Anderson, 7-5. In a long career filled with wrong turns at central intersections, Cuevas made one more move away from his intended destination. The weight of the past — and of a turning point not seized — visibly entered a fourth set in which Anderson cruised on serve, broke in the fifth game, and calmly strolled to the winner’s circle.


While some players play for championships, other players play for the second week at majors. While some players aren’t culturally or emotionally dedicated to one surface above others, some players build their careers on the foundation of one particular kind of ground beneath their feet. Pablo Cuevas is that kind of player. His yesterdays greatly outnumber his tomorrows, which is why Thursday’s match against Anderson was so important.


This might not be his last chance to change his sad history at Roland Garros, but it might have been his best. Like the other chances he had, this one went begging.


Anderson, bless him, deserves to be saluted for how he continues to forge ahead and deliver results he can be proud of. Yet, “Kevin Anderson makes third round of Roland Garros” is a much less significant headline, all things considered, than “Pablo Cuevas won’t make the fourth round of Roland Garros.”


Sometimes, the sad story carries more weight than the happy one. That is part of the reality of tennis, just like any other sport and any other human endeavor.

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