Matt Zemek

Every person is unique. Every situation is unique — not in its broader contours, but in its particularities, and in its relationship to the person processing the situation.

We often encounter the same general type of situation in life, but we are usually — if not always — in a different space and place each time that situation greets us anew. We perform a lot of repetitive tasks — both at work and at home — but our head space is different, our pressures are different, our distractions are different.

Human beings, if properly taught and oriented, try to meet recurring situations or challenges with an ideal baseline level of consistency. We might not always succeed, but with sound guidance and counsel, a support network, and other resources from our surroundings, we can reduce the number of instances in which we fail to meet the standards we set for ourselves, thereby increasing the rate at which we hit the target.

Women’s tennis is, on many levels, far different from most other professions on this planet. Professionals show up to work not knowing how large their paychecks will be. Other jobs are like that, but other jobs which involve such uncertainty are often dependent on the behavior and judgments of other people. Tennis players get to shape their outcomes in a much more direct way than, say, a lawyer or a real estate agent. For tennis players, “closing a sale” is not a negotiation so much as a forceful act of playing a superior brand of ball. Tennis is very different from other professions on many levels.

Yet, in other ways, tennis is no different from other professions.

It IS highly repetitive. It IS — at most tournaments — a sport in which job performance is evaluated and tested every day. It IS a theater of activity in which handling stress and controlling emotions are inherent parts of the job. (Yes, this is inherent to tennis. Even Nick Kyrgios, who blows up at umpires or linespeople, has to calm himself enough to hit a 135-mile-per-hour second serve on break point.)

How people respond to the pressures of tennis will differ from one person to the next, and on Friday in Cincinnati, we saw in a very clear way how Kiki Bertens and Elina Svitolina have responded to the most painful event of their 2018 tennis season.

The most difficult moment for both players was a shared experience at the very beginning of June: a loss in the third round of the French Open. Svitolina lost to Mihaela Buzarnescu on Friday, June 1, while Bertens lost to Angelique Kerber on Saturday, June 2. Both women were popular picks to make deep runs in Paris. Both are at their best on clay, where their comfortable movement shows up the most and opponents find it harder to serve them off the court. Svitolina had shown some hardcourt chops by winning in Dubai and Toronto last year, but the 2017 French Open — when she was up a set and 5-1 over Simona Halep in the quarterfinals before faltering — was her best chance at a major title. Bertens’ best major has also been Roland Garros, where she reached the 2016 semifinals and, had she been healthy, could have beaten Serena Williams in what was a very close match.

Bertens made the Madrid final in the 2018 run-up to Roland Garros. Svitolina defended her 2017 Rome title this past May. Many athletes will say or think they have a shot at a huge achievement — that’s not necessarily wrong, but for some, it is an act of “faking it ’til you make it,” of trying to believe that one can do something and, in the process, create a new culture of confidence WITHOUT results which justify such optimism. For Bertens and Svitolina, there was nothing fake about believing a Roland Garros title or final was possible. These were genuine clay-court threats at the highest level of the sport. It was not a desperate dream or an act of self-delusion to think they could triumph in Paris.

When they couldn’t even get out of the first week at Roland Garros, they had to absorb all the pain, all the disappointment, all the deflation and dejection which accompanied that early exit. It is one thing for a five-time major champion to lose early in a tournament. That player has still proven her worth so many times that failures can’t be seen as searing indictments or crushing gut punches. They sting, but the quality and triumph of a larger career coexist with that pain to soothe the wound. For the player who has never made a major final (let alone won a title), that void carries more of an impact and thereby represents a bigger hurdle to overcome.

Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)

Bertens and Svitolina had to soak up everything their Roland Garros losses meant to them. Athletes do need to have short memories, yes, but they also need to be honest with themselves about the times when they fall short. This honesty — which enables them to face up to what they did (and didn’t do) — gives them a roadmap for the future which they can trust. By not hiding from the fullness of what went wrong, they can make things right.

Kiki Bertens has done that. Elina Svitolina is trying to do that. The difference between “having done” and “trying to do” was apparent in a Friday quarterfinal in Cincinnati.

This is not an indictment of Svitolina, merely a reflection of the in-between place she inhabits, physically and mentally. She has conceded that she and her team are exploring ways to get the most out of her game. She has noticeably lost weight relative to last year. Her weight of shot is not what it was last year. When a body goes through change, being quick to assign losses or slumps to the mental game is premature. Svitolina shouldn’t be tagged as someone who lacks resilience. She did in fact make the Montreal semifinals before Sloane Stephens defeated her.

Nevertheless, what can be said about Svitolina is that she no longer occupies the foremost line of threats for the U.S. Open or any major tournament in 2019. She has lost stature in accordance with the loss of her weight of body… and weight of shot. Searching for solutions — stepping back in response to a moment of hardship — before turning 24 years old is a reasonable and responsible thing to do. If searching and revising and redesigning give her a stronger, firmer platform of resources heading into Roland Garros next year, this larger version of a tennis makeover will be worth it. It can’t go on forever, but if it has a clear roadmap and takes Svitolina in the right direction next season, it will have been worth it. This isn’t so much a failure as it is an intentional choice to step back and reassess, rooted in the realization that something is missing.

For Bertens, not much is missing right now… and she isn’t missing very many shots — not when the pressure is on.

Her Roland Garros letdown was followed by surprising run to a first Wimbledon quarterfinal, made possible by a “pulled from the fire” victory against Venus Williams, a five-time Wimbledon champion. In Montreal on the North American continent, she did not relent, beating Karolina Pliskova (whom she also defeated at Wimbledon) and Petra Kvitova, whom she will meet in Saturday’s Cincinnati semifinals. After her productive week in Montreal, she has avoided a letdown in Ohio. The player who had been a clay specialist has transferred her game to both grass and clay. A few years older than Svitolina, Bertens isn’t wrestling with internal uncertainty or swimming through the waters of a philosophical transition regarding her holistic approach to the game. Bertens is playing with trust, and from that trust comes a more authoritative style of play which was imposed upon Svitolina on Friday in Cincinnati.

The numbers say that Svitolina was the No. 5 seed and Bertens was unseeded, but the ways these players have responded to Roland Garros — a shared disappointment — have been profoundly different. Svitolina’s response hasn’t been wrong, and moreover, her hardcourt season has been respectable. However, at the end of May, it seemed Svitolina was going to take the next step as a tennis player. Now, she is in full “regroup” mode, conceding that she is not quite ready to ascend to the top reaches of the sport.

Svitolina isn’t wrong, but Bertens’ way of proceeding is certainly right. A player filled with self-assurance and — in 2018 — an ability to turn the page has managed to shrug off a stinging memory in Paris much better than her Ukrainian counterpart. These differences in responses are part of the shifting sands of the always fluid, always unfolding drama of the present-day WTA Tour.

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