The construct of the five stages of grief, as developed by Elisabeth Kubler Ross, has provided psychological structure and inner calm for millions of human beings through the years, placing labels and a sense of flow on emotions or sensations that can be very hard to explain and even harder to lovingly embrace. To be okay with one’s grief is to learn how to do something very profound and important as a human being, because while none of us enjoy grieving, we have to learn how to do it. We have to gain peace with ourselves and our surroundings if we are to remain strong when the world crashes down upon us.
So it also is in tennis, a sport in which players legitimately (and reasonably, and rightly) grieve matches they lose, especially at the most important events on tour. What more important tournament is there in tennis than Wimbledon? Crashing out on Day 1 of any major carries a sting, especially for home-nation players or huge favorites, but unless you are Pablo Carreno Busta or another player who is uniquely inept on grass, losing at Wimbledon might hurt more than losing anywhere else during the tennis season.
There is a need to grieve after leaving the most hallowed grounds in tennis so quickly.
It’s not just Wimbledon’s combination of history and stature — connected to the very roots of tennis — which makes an early loss so frustrating to absorb. Losing early at Wimbledon immediately ends a grass season for almost everyone on tour (ATP Newport participants excepted), and therefore creates a large mid-year void on the calendar. Instead of stacking more points on top of Roland Garros — or compensating for a bad French Open — early Wimbledon losers fail to solidify their points standing at the end of the two most adjacent major tournaments in tennis. This double stack of majors — held three weeks apart — can become a massive catapult for players, which is why losing in round one at Wimbledon is often an enormous letdown. Such is life for some of the high-profile losers on Monday in both the women’s and men’s tournaments.
Elina Svitolina, Grigor Dimitrov, Magdalena Rybarikova, and Borna Coric did not share sky-high expectations coming to Wimbledon, but they all wanted to make important statements about their staying power on tour. Svitolina wanted to face Serena Williams in the third round. Dimitrov wanted to finally translate his talent into results at a tournament of consequence in 2018, after his strong finish to the 2017 season in London at the ATP Finals. Rybarikova had a lot of Wimbledon points to defend from last year and hoped to prove that she could handle the pressure attached to backing up her best points result of 2017. Coric — much like Svitolina — was not a realistic title contender, but he wanted a shot at an icon in the middle rounds of this tournament. Svitolina wanted Serena. Coric wanted another shot at Roger Federer, this time at a major, in the fourth round on Manic Monday, July 9.
All four of these players fell far short of their goals. All of them were dumped before the sun set on the first day of The Championships. All of them were quickly ushered out of the grass season, plunged into a summer hardcourt future filled with uncertainty and pressure.
Svitolina didn’t have the words “championship contender” attached to her name at Wimbledon, a marked contrast to the French Open, but even then, she couldn’t live up to comparatively modest aspirations. That Serena showdown won’t materialize, and Svitolina will once again have to contemplate the reality that she failed to clear the bar set for her at a major tournament. She never looked comfortable in a three-set loss to the ascendant and resourceful Tatjana Maria on Monday.
Dimitrov? The familiar and sad refrains about shriveling under pressure were sung yet again — these doleful Grigorian chants — after the Bulgarian lost a 5-2 third-set lead and bowed out in four sets against Stan Wawrinka, who has never been at home on grass.
Rybarikova led Sorana Cirstea — never regarded as a closer on the WTA Tour — by a 5-3 margin in the first set. Rybarikova then lost the next four games and was never heard from again on Day 1 at Wimbledon. She put together a solid grass warm-up season, but Wimbledon was always going to be the measure of her grass campaign in 2018, and she leaves suburban London with nothing to point to. If she is going to compensate for this significant rankings-based tumble, she will have to do it on cement, not green blades, later this summer.
Coric got hot in the best-of-three context afforded by Halle, and he made use of the fact that Alexander Zverev — his round-of-32 opponent in Germany — was not healthy. At Wimbledon, first-round foe Daniil Medvedev exhibited better health and finer form. Coric did not have the answers to Medvedev’s questions. His grass-court balloon and surprise ATP title got popped in very short order.
All these losses aren’t equally bad. Svitolina wasn’t 100-percent healthy, Rybarikova not an imposing player who can expect to dominate when she takes the court. Dimitrov has long crossed the point at which early losses are shocking. Coric, at 21, still has his whole career ahead of him. Yet, all of these results are similar — and can be knitted together — through one very simple prism: They all represent, to varying degrees, instances in which players could not handle modest challenges, burdened by the weight of pressure, whether internal or external.
Svitolina’s and Dimitrov’s histories at majors; Rybarikova’s need to defend a huge amount of points; and Coric’s entry into the Wimbledon spotlight (a plot twist not anticipated three or four weeks ago) all made these first-round matches conspicuous tests of their fortitude. They didn’t carry championship-level hopes into SW19, but that should never stop talented performers from being able to do what they can.
It is true — and this is a feature of tennis, not a bug — that players can have great tournaments and not make the final. A fourth round or quarterfinal would have been a great result for Svitolina at this tournament under these circumstances. Rybarikova might have had to face Madison Keys in round three; losing to a player of Keys’ caliber would have given the Slovakian grass specialist the knowledge that while she still would have lost a lot of points, she would have withstood the pressure of this tournament in a way she could feel proud of. Exiting in round one to a less accomplished opponent won’t give her that same degree of comfort and reassurance. Coric could have lost to Federer in the fourth round and felt very good about the overall state of his game, but this round-one wrong turn will leave a more bitter taste. Dimitrov? What more needs to be said about him at this point?
Tennis players need to walk a fine line between denial — the first stage of grief — and acceptance, which is the last stage of grief. They simultaneously need to be realistic about what they can achieve at tournaments and stubborn in believing they can always climb higher. Tennis players have to be clear-eyed about their place in the sport but laser-focused on competing in ways which block out the pressure or other burdens — self-imposed or externally conferred — which fall upon them.
Monday at Wimbledon, four players did not shoulder these burdens very well. This doesn’t destroy the 2018 season for any of them, but it makes the coming summer that much more of a pressure cooker. The year just took a noticeably negative turn for four athletes. How they deal with denial and acceptance will have a lot to say about their responses to a Monday gone wrong at the Big Dubya.