Kontaveit and Muguruza losses are part of a larger reality in sports

The easy answer, the natural response, to the first-round Roland Garros losses suffered by Anett Kontaveit and Garbine Mugruza is to say that Guadalajara’s WTA Finals meant very little in the larger scheme of things. Yes, Kontaveit and Muguruza won a lot of money in Mexico, so that tournament contains real value for them, which is fine. Yet, in terms of signaling growth or evolution as tennis players, no, it didn’t possess larger and more transcendent dimensions.

You might think this discussion is a familiar re-hash of the old “post-U.S. Open runs” theme, and whether these October-November surges should be assigned a lot of weight. To be sure, Kontaveit and Muguruza have highlighted this particular tennis discussion and have revealed themselves to be short-term beneficiaries of the lull which often occurs for a good chunk of the pro tour after the last major of the year ends in a New York September.

Yet, this discussion goes beyond tennis. It is a larger conversation about sports in 2022, measured against 2021 and 2020. We are still living in the pandemic, and we’re not yet at a point in time where sports of various kinds have a whole-cloth feel. What I mean by that is that we can’t view sports as having a natural flow as a realm of activity. One year seems uniquely cut off from the next, instead of sports representing a continuous story.

Here’s the direct explanation: In 2020, a lot of sporting events, including tennis tournaments, did not have fans, at least not anything above half-capacity. That was a profoundly unique experience compared to more recent sporting events with larger crowds much more resembling a normal environment.

In 2021, COVID-19 protocols and traveling/schedule adjustments existed to a much greater extent than they did in 2022, creating fresh one-time challenges which are unlikely to be replicated in future years. A good example of this in tennis was the moving of Indian Wells to October. We saw in 2021 several concrete examples of players treating the season as a one-of-a-kind journey, the most prominent case being Ash Barty living on the road for several months and not returning home to Australia until the fall.

Because these dynamics in 2021 were so unique, it is hard to extrapolate the meaning of a number of career trajectories and progressions, with 2022 resetting the dial for nearly everyone.

Ash Barty clearly showed in January that her excellence in 2021 was real and sustainable, but Kontaveit and Muguruza have shown the opposite.

Tennis isn’t the only sport in which 2022 assessments are hard to make based on 2021 results. Look at the NBA and the world of professional basketball.

The compressed 2021 NBA season created a tidal wave of significant injuries during a season which was profoundly disrupted due to COVID-19 absences and interruptions due to health and safety protocols. The two teams which made the NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, had the fewest significant injury and COVID disruptions. They earned their place in the championship series, but COVID’s plot twists played a role in helping them get where they wanted to go.

In 2022, a lot of people thought the Bucks and Suns were headed for a rematch, but other teams proved to be better. It didn’t mean 2021 was a fluke, but it did mean it was unrealistic or — at the very least — inaccurate to assume that one year’s results would carry over into the next year.

As we process and absorb Kontaveit and Muguruza losing early in Paris, we are led to this next intriguing question: When 2023 starts, how much will we be able to base our evaluations on what we have seen in 2022? That answer is not easy to calibrate at the moment.

Check back after Wimbledon.

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