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Bercy and the Power of Competitive Space

Matt Zemek

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Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

Competitive space — what do you think that means?

It is not a commonplace term in the lexicon of sports, but it kept coming back to me when I attempted to process the 2018 Paris Masters and the tournament in general, informally referred to as “Bercy.”

Competitive space refers to head space, but in a context of sports competition. The backdrop to a match or tournament shapes the way the competitor thinks about the event. The more unique the competitive space, the more unique the result can sometimes be.

Bercy demonstrates this concept more than most tournaments on the tennis tour, arguably more than any other tournament with a “normal” format. The year-end championships for both tours — especially the WTA Finals — illustrate this concept as well, given that the change in format is not something the participants deal with in the previous nine to 10 months of the season. It thrusts them into something new. The last four WTA Finals have produced entirely surprising champions most pundits (including myself) did not predict, and didn’t even come CLOSE to predicting.

Let’s take a little time to explain why Bercy puts athletes in a different kind of competitive space, and how that manifested itself over the past week.

First of all, in his piece on Bercy from Monday, Tennis With An Accent contributor Andrew Burton noted that for the second straight year, a player pulled off a deathbed escape early in the tournament and then got on a roll to win it.

What happened to Jack Sock against Kyle Edmund in Bercy in 2017 happened to Karen Khachanov against John Isner in 2018. Yes, the two runs were different in terms of the caliber of opponent each man faced — Khachanov stared down a MUCH tougher list of opponents — but the dynamic of escaping the knife at the throat in the early rounds and then being emboldened enough to win the title was the same.

Yes, it is true that the specific pattern of escaping early and then dominating late is something the Big 3 have done many, many times in their careers, but the plot twist of Bercy the last two years is that someone has come from nowhere — way off the radar screen — to win a first Masters 1000 title.

John Isner’s Miami Masters title wasn’t this shocking or abrupt. Isner had knocked on the door at American hardcourt Masters tournaments before. This could be compared to Grigor Dimitrov’s 2017 Cincinnati title, in which injuries hollowed out the tournament — that is a detail 2017 Cincinnati shared with many Bercy tournaments. Yet, when Dimitrov won the 2017 ATP Finals a few months later, that result felt less irregular in the full context of the 2017 ATP season.

The last two Bercy events have ambushed fans and observers in a manner akin to the way Khachanov ambushed Sascha Zverev and Dominic Thiem in merciless beatdowns, and then fought past Novak Djokovic on a day when most (including myself) figured that the year-end No. 1 player on the ATP Tour would add yet another Masters trophy to his massive collection.

There’s something about Bercy, isn’t there? What is that “something”? Competitive space.

It is a detail so simple, yet so profound, in its presence: Bercy, unlike any other Masters 1000 event, offers a scenario in which players outside the top eight (or perhaps the top 10, if they know a win will vault them into London for the ATP Finals) are aware that each match they play is likely to be the last match of their season.

It’s not merely the possible last match of a week or month, but of a season. That is a different competitive environment. “Well, I can regroup for next week at the next tour stop” is not an option. “Well, I worked on my game this week. I can apply new lessons next week” is not accessible as a rationale for players.

Bercy carries a level — and type — of finality other tournaments lack. Sock and Khachanov certainly played like players who didn’t want their seasons to end. They found something and didn’t lose it.

Competitive space wasn’t just illustrated in Bercy by Khachanov’s championship. It was revealed in the memorable semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

One could say that the nature of the battle was changed by the fact that Djokovic did not feel well during his week in Paris. That’s true. Yet, another dimension of this match which wasn’t all that ordinary was expressed by Federer in word and circumstance.

Federer made a late decision to play this tournament, which rated as a surprise relative to his recent tendency to play fewer tournaments in general, and also in the context of his relationship with Bercy, which he had not played since 2015. Federer “winged it,” doing something off the cuff and not with meticulous advance planning. He does that once in a while — see Rotterdam earlier this year — but not as a matter of course.

When Federer got to the semifinals and earned his date with Djokovic, he told the press in Paris that he had nothing to lose against his Serbian rival. He had less pressure and entered a match against Djokovic with very few expectations, far fewer than normal. In our Twitter direct message threads at Tennis With An Accent, our editorial team generally agreed this was a “free match” for Federer.

I didn’t EXPECT Federer to play well under those circumstances, but it was always possible that playing without a profound sense of burden or pressure would liberate Federer’s tennis, very much including his serve.

Darned if that wasn’t EXACTLY what happened on Saturday.

If this had not been a “free match,” would Federer have played as freely? Maybe — he’s Roger Frickin’ Federer, 20-time major champion! Yet, it was very hard to have imagined Federer winning Basel, going to Paris the next week, reaching the semifinals, and playing three hours of crowd-pleasing tennis against the best current player in the sport.

Competitive space DID have more than a little to do with how events unfolded in Bercy.

A postscript from women’s tennis: Monica Puig is struggling on the WTA Tour. She might still have a late-career epiphany akin to Julia Goerges this year or Angelique Kerber in 2016, but so far, the Puerto Rican has struggled to find a foothold in the upper reaches of the WTA Tour.

What was, by far, the best week of Puig’s tennis career in terms of both performance and results? The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

The Olympics enabled Puig to fight for her country, which represents a different competitive space relative to regular tour life.

What was the best achievement of Elena Dementieva’s tennis career? Winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

For those two players, competing in a different context liberated their games in ways tour tennis did not.

Competitive space — you might not have had an idea of what this term meant at the start of this piece. I think you have a very good idea of what it means as I bring this piece to its conclusion.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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