Earned Status

The labels will vary for each person: Elite. Top-tier. Heavyweight. Frontline contender. Second-tier. Floater. Dangerous loomer. Significant threat. Outside chance. Potent underdog. In the mix. Puncher’s chance. People use various words in English or other languages to convey their assessment of various players at major tournaments, and more specifically, the level of stature they possess as contenders for the championship.

This article is less about identifying specific WTA players as top-line or second-tier threats for the title, and more about the process of defining or arriving at different assessments. What should guide us when we make these determinations? When should we feel a specific player has earned a higher level of status or lost it?

These are the questions going through my mind — maybe yours — after a typically chaotic first few days of action at Roland Garros.

The result which contains particular relevance in relationship to this discussion is Ons Jabeur’s loss to Magda Linette. It’s true that Linette is no pushover and not an easy first-round foe. Nevertheless, Jabeur was, for many, the second choice behind Iga Swiatek as the favorite for the title. She clearly had the second-best clay season after Swiatek, making consecutive finals in Madrid and Rome, winning the former.

The question was worth asking before Roland Garros began, but it now becomes an even more central query in the wake of her loss: What status has Ons Jabeur earned on tour? She certainly has improved that status, but her loss in Paris to Linette places an undeniable limitation on how much we should elevate her among the other leading lights of the tour.

No, this doesn’t mean she is overrated. That’s not the underlying point here. The main thrust of this discussion is best expressed as follows: When a good player takes significant forward steps on tour but then falls short at a major right after those improvements, it is not easy to calibrate how much we should elevate that player in our overall estimation.

Did the true and full measure of the player emerge in the surge which created new and bigger levels of hype going into Roland Garros, or was the true measure of the player the French Open defeat, not the runs to the finals in Madrid and Rome? A good general answer: a little of both. The ultimate answer is a lot harder to arrive at. Which side of the equation do we lean into a little more, or do we place an equal amount of emphasis on both halves?

These are not easy questions, but like any good questions in life, they are worth wrestling with.

Jabeur still has a lot of room in which to grow and evolve. As the scene shifts to the players still left in the field in Paris, the focus naturally falls on Swiatek. As great as she has in fact been since February, it remains that her dominance of the tour has lasted three months. We can say that Swiatek is likely to win Roland Garros and likely to continue to thrive — I personally agree with each of those claims — but she hasn’t yet run a full-year race at the top of the sport. More precisely, Swiatek’s dominance in 2022 hasn’t yet included a major title.

What I’m getting at is that Swiatek will significantly change how she is perceived by winning this Roland Garros tournament. If she pulls it off, she sends a strong message that the past three months of elite play could carry into a major event. Every-week excellence remained intact on the biggest stage.

Though Swiatek looks every bit like a durable and entrenched No. 1 player who is going to rule the WTA for years, winning a major as No. 1 would cement her dominance to a degree that no other feat could.

Swiatek has earned higher status — the level of stature Ons Jabeur has yet to claim — but there are still higher realms for her to reach.

Has she already earned the benefit of the doubt? I personally think so. The meaning of this Roland Garros, however, is that we won’t even have to discuss the benefit of the doubt — or related notions — if she lifts a trophy in Paris on Saturday, June 4.

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