Matt Zemek

When watching American-style football, I hear this expression all the time: “throwing open.”

The specific use of the term: A quarterback — the person in American football whose main job is to throw the ball down the field  — “throws open” his receiver, the person tasked with catching his passes.

The meaning of the term: When a passer releases the ball, the intended receiver is not open. A defender is very close to the receiver. However, because of the angle, trajectory and direction of the pass, the receiver is wide open when the ball arrives in his hands. The person who passed the ball recognized the alignment of the defense, or the angle the defender was taking on the play, or both. The passer knew where his receiver would be if he located the ball in a particular spot. The passer also made the split-second judgment that the defenders would be out of position to intercept or knock down the pass if the ball was thrown in a specific way.

The receiver wasn’t open when the pass is thrown, but is wide open when the pass arrives. That is what it means for a passer to “throw open” his intended target.

Tennis is not a team sport. People don’t “pass the ball” to teammates. In tennis, there is no clean and neat equivalent of “throwing open.” However, to the extent that “throwing open” involves trust on the part of athletes, and to the extent that a feeling of certainty does not exist when a pass is first thrown, one can find a situation with some parallels to “throwing open.” The grass season on the ATP Tour is a good place to start.

Lucas Pouille, who happens to be the defending champion at this week’s event in Stuttgart, won his opening match on Wednesday and will be in Friday’s quarterfinals. Pouille has no reason to feel especially confident about his prospects, no reason to think his game is about to burst into color, no reason to suspect that a career transformation is just around the corner. Pouille got stuck on red clay the past two months. There was no Masters semifinal run this year, unlike Rome 2016 or Monte Carlo 2017. He won only one match in the Monte Carlo-Madrid-Rome run-up to Paris. He didn’t get out of the first week of Roland Garros, this after losing in round one of the Australian Open and dropping a highly winnable U.S. Open fourth-round match to Diego Schwartzman.

Pouille is stuck. In order to reshape his career, he has to pull off the tennis equivalent of “throwing open.” Can he create, by dint of his own effort and perseverance, a grass season which unlocks his talents and steers his career down a new and better path?

Regardless of whether you — or I — think he WILL in fact forge this achievement (I am always skeptical), Pouille and the rest of us in the global tennis community should consider this idea:

Whereas clay has a way of unmasking players unwilling to be patient, grass punishes players who are inefficient and can’t pounce on opportunities when they come. Pouille’s ability to make bad use of a good situation — so quintessentially French in a tennis-only sense — might persist regardless of circumstance, but if one surface can confront Pouille with the need to stop being wasteful, it’s grass. The speed and delicacy of lawn tennis are worlds away from standing seven feet behind the baseline on Court Philippe Chatrier, exchanging and absorbing heavy topspin. It is true that grass plays a lot more like a hardcourt than it did 30 years ago in the days of Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, but even then, grass is the enemy of the player who waits for something to happen or veers in and out of a focused state. Tennis is a sport built on the timely shot and the situationally specific rise in play — on a 30-30 point, at 5-4 in a set, in a tiebreaker — and grass elevates the primacy of timeliness to an even greater degree.

Grass, by demanding focus in ways other surfaces don’t, could itself be Lucas Pouille’s best teacher and taskmaster. Grass could enable the Frenchman to “throw open” his 2018 season and open up a new world of possibilities.

Source: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images AsiaPac


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