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Nikoloz Basilashvili sets himself apart for unfortunate reasons

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Karen Khachanov lost in the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday. Denis Shapovalov lost on Monday. Andrey Rublev did as well. So, you might ask, why focus on the early loss by Nikoloz Basilashvili, who fell to Marton Fucsovics?

The clock is ticking… and not everyone can follow the example of Stan Wawrinka.

We know that Wawrinka gained an epiphany at age 28 — Magnus Norman had a lot to do with that, but Stan still had to allow the light to go on in his mind and then apply newfound lessons on tour. Other players have been inspired by Wawrinka — not just in their hearts, but by achieving higher results in the latter stages of a tennis career. Sam Querrey made a Wimbledon semifinal two years ago. Roberto Bautista Agut is better at age 30 than he was at 25 or 26. Kevin Anderson and John Isner have played the best tennis of their lives in their 30s. “The Wawrinka Effect” is a real thing.

However, it cannot be assumed that this dynamic will easily or automatically flow to the next talented 28- or 30-year-old player who comes along.

Usually, and over a much longer period of time, tennis players who don’t figure things out by their mid-20s don’t have a late-stage Wawrinka-like ascension to a Hall of Fame level. Heck, they don’t even rise to the level of, let’s say, Dominic Thiem, who has made a Roland Garros final and won a Masters 1000.

The tennis clock is ticking for players in this age group: Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, and Grigor Dimitrov are three particularly prominent examples. One can’t bank on the idea that a newer, better day and a brighter vista of possibility are about to emerge.

This is why Basilashvili, 27, carries more baggage out of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, than the other Monte Carlo losers I mentioned at the start of this piece.

Khachanov is not yet 23. Shapovalov just turned 20. Rublev is 21. We are not truly at a point where those careers merit the urgent and pressure-packed question, “If not now, when?”

Basilashvili is legitimately subject to that kind of question, not his younger competitors on tour.

Of all the players who offered the possibility that they could rise to a higher tier in 2019 — including 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev and 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe and 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas — Basilashvili faced the most pressure. This is not because more people expected him to make major semifinals or Masters quarterfinals than the other players included in this piece. More people did not expect Basilashvili to succeed where other ATP players failed.

The urgency for Basilashvili in 2019 came from the simple fact that he blossomed later in his career, and therefore needed to translate that long-sought improvement into immediate gains. At worst, Basilashvili needed to attain moderate results to preserve a seeded position at important tournaments. At best, Basil needed to get into a habit of making quarterfinals at tournaments so that he could play the elites and gather information which would help him at the majors.

The Georgian hasn’t been able to rise to that relatively modest standard.

What will happen when he has to defend more points in the second half of the 2019 season?

The problem is not — and would not be — the failure to build off the previous season, or to be more precise, that wouldn’t be the centrally disappointing aspect of an unrealized 2019 campaign. The real concern is that if a player fails to consolidate gains at age 27 and 28, the idea of creating a new rise to power at a future point in time becomes harder to accept.

Khachanov, Shapo, Tsitsipas, even Alexander Zverev (who turns 22 later in April), can endure a really rough season and not think it represents a total derailment to a career. Young players can absorb horrible seasons and view them as necessary teaching tools for a larger evolution into a complete player.

On the other hand, when a 27-year-old who showed signs of a full-fledged emergence on tour is knocked to the curb by the rest of the tour, it is hard to assign any positive value to that development. Basilashvili taking a step back in 2019 is akin to Stan Wawrinka losing early in the 2013 U.S. Open instead of making the semifinals, a result which set the stage for his brilliant 2014 season and the career transformation which accompanied it.

The ATP players in their early 20s shouldn’t exactly shrug off their losses or hiccups as though they don’t contain any meaning, but they can all look at periods of adversity and absorb the lessons attached to those moments.

For a 27-year-old such as Nikoloz Basilashvili, who has already gone through many years of hardship, the possibility of a career ascendancy at this stage of a tennis journey can’t be squandered, because the odds of making a second — and better — climb up the mountain in two or three years will not be very high.

Want to find a player who really needs a good month of May, heading into Roland Garros? On the ATP side, it’s hard to find a better example than Niko.

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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