Matt Zemek

I have made comparisons between tennis and baseball before, because the two sports lend themselves to comparisons on so many levels. The meeting of Olga Danilovic and Anastasia Potapova in Sunday’s historic Moscow River Cup final offers another connection between the two sports. I hasten to add that readers in Europe who don’t gain much exposure to baseball don’t need to understand the sport to grasp the comparison I am about to make.

A comparison between tennis and baseball I have not made before — not when writing for Tennis With An Accent or Patreon, at any rate — is that players stay in cities for multiple days at a time. This is part of the rhythm of playing throughout a full season.

In professional basketball, professional hockey, or professional football (the international version or the American version), teams play one opponent on one day in one city and then move to the next game, usually with days off between games. Baseball, it is true, involves playing the same opponent each day in 3- or 4-day sequences. That is different from tennis, where the opponent necessarily varies from day to day. However, the larger similarities are evident: Players do spend three or more days in specific cities, then fly to the next city for at least a few more days. Each plane flight, each new destination, requires adjustments to conditions, the conscious ability to reset, and to perform the task of any athlete in any sport: Retain what must be retained and forget what must be forgotten.

Many baseball seasons, when recalled, took a turn in one city. A few hypothetical examples: The New York Yankees were struggling and then had a great August weekend in Toronto which put them back on track. The Los Angeles Dodgers were surging, and then lost a four-game series in Cincinnati in early September and never regained a comfort zone.

Tennis seasons have turned — and will continue to turn — in similar ways. This year alone, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep experienced life-changing moments in Melbourne and Paris, respectively. Elina Svitolina’s season changed in Paris in a negative way. We will see how much baggage that loss acquires (or ceases to maintain) in the coming months.

While it is true that the summer clay season — among the various segments of the tennis year — is comparatively less important, one of the delightful aspects of tennis is that every week, one of the stops on tour offers the possibility of something special happening. Much as the daily churn of a long baseball season can create richly memorable moments with lasting historical resonance, tennis can do the same. You never know when one match, or one tournament, will give rise to a fresh story or a new set of possibilities.

In many weeks, something ordinary happens. Fabio Fognini winning a summer clay season tournament a week ago in Bastad, Sweden, represented a relatively common occurrence. Fognini’s titles have come on clay, and they have regularly emerged in the post-Wimbledon summer. What happened in Bastad was hardly a new development. In the coming weeks, Novak Djokovic might win Toronto and Wozniacki or Halep might win Montreal… but tennis, like life, offers no guarantees. One never knows how each week (or at the majors and Indian Wells plus Miami, a fortnight) will unfold. The pathway from first ball to last always contains the possibility of a box of surprises, and when that box is opened, the imagination of tennis fans can become a magical place.

Such is the case after the Danilovic-Potapova final on Sunday in Moscow. This match was crammed with historical milestones.

This was the first Moscow clay tournament, replacing Bastad on the WTA summer calendar. The Danilovic-Potapova matchup represented the first WTA Tour final for both women, guaranteeing the first WTA champion born in the 21st century. Danilovic won, becoming the first lucky loser to win a WTA title since Andrea Jaeger (a former Wimbledon and French Open runner-up) in 1980. Potapova was a wild card who would have achieved a rare title from that position in a main-tour draw.

Who knew that this week in Moscow — this plane flight, this week of practice and competition, this environment, this tournament, this stay in a city on tour — would unearth such contextual riches and professional achievements? Tennis, creating a new chapter each day, led fans and observers on a magic carpet ride.

In addition to the journey itself and the magnitude of Danilovic winning her first title in her first main-draw WTA event — very few players get to make that claim — the reality of two 17-year-olds playing in a WTA final begins a story which allows Danilovic and Potapova to dream, along with all tennis fans.

There are various kinds of “where were you when?” moments in sports, the moments we consciously take note of and preserve in our memories because of a felt sense of importance. Some moments are the best tennis match we have ever seen. Other matches are the “passing of the torch” matches when the talented newcomer beats the aging icon in a close contest at a big tournament. Another match might set an especially historic record or represent a timeless achievement. The Battle of the Sexes was a “where were you when?” sports moment because of its influence on American culture and sports through the prism of gender.

Danilovic-Potapova might not REMAIN a “where were you when?” moment, but an occasion freighted with historical resonance and graced with the rich possibility of becoming something special in the course of time certainly makes it a match worth locking up in the vault of our memories, to be taken out of the vault if either player reaches profound heights in her career.

“Remember that late July Sunday in Moscow when Danilovic and Potapova met in a WTA final at 17?” Your friend might ask that question in 2022, when the two women meet in a French Open final.

“Remember when and how this journey started?” Tennis writers might print that question after Danilovic and Potapova meet in a 2023 Wimbledon semifinal and play a classic match.

Projecting the future is not the point here — not at all. Savoring the present moment’s unfurling of historic achievements, and savoring the birth of two new tennis stories, are the gifts Danilovic and Potapova have given to the sport.

You never know what the next city — the next stop in a long season of daily competition — is going to create in the world of tennis. The “not knowing” is precisely what makes the journey so fun and fascinating.

Source: Al Bello/Getty Images North America

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