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No blame, just a cruel game

Matt Zemek

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Sometimes, tennis players endure bad losses. Sometimes, as was the case at Roland Garros on Wednesday, players run into the cruel realities of tennis.

It is easy for people in my position — pundits, commentators, bloggers behind the safety and security of a computer keyboard — to criticize athletes when they lose. Purely in terms of access to a publishing platform, it IS easy. I could create a scathing column or an incendiary take if I wanted to.

Yet, the procedural ease of criticizing athletes is PRECISELY why I have to display restraint and prudence when choosing to criticize. If I ripped athletes with regularity, I would be viewed — appropriately and correctly — as a keyboard warrior who used his position to feel superior, or to tear athletes down in defeat after building them up in victory.

I think you can already see the larger point I am making, a point I have made at times in the past: Sportswriting and sports analysis can’t be reduced to “praise in moments of victory, criticize in moments of defeat” in all instances. Sure, that’s how it OFTEN works, but it can’t be the immutable, fixed, set-in-stone law of sports commentary. If it WAS, there really wouldn’t be much of any purpose in the process of offering sports analysis. The results would ALWAYS indicate which athletes deserved praise or criticism.

It is not that linear. It is not that obvious. It is not that simple.

Athletes can and do lose in disappointing ways all the time, but a disappointing result isn’t the same as a disappointing performance. Those are often two very different things. Three ATP players who lost on Wednesday at Roland Garros offer perfect examples of this reality, all in the direction of absorbing disappointing results but not earning disapproving verdicts of their performance or their professionalism.

For Cristian Garin, Guido Pella, and Matteo Berrettini, Wednesday was a textbook example of tennis being a very nasty beast. They shouldn’t be disappointed in THEMSELVES, only in the reality of an early exit they all hoped they could avoid.

This line of thought might already be self-evident to some, but not to everyone. Here is a brief explanation of why the results alone, not the match performances, should disappoint Garin, Pella, and Berrettini.

Cristian Garin, Guido Pella, and Matteo Berrettini played the best tennis of their careers over the past few months. They all flourished during the 2019 clay season. Berrettini even thrived on hardcourts at the Phoenix (Arizona) challenger in March, a convenient stopover en route from Indian Wells to Miami.

It does not need to be explained that tennis is a sport in which winning means more work, and losing means less work. Winning is desirable, but it does invite its own first-world problems, chiefly strain and fatigue.

If you aren’t used to winning a lot, and then you start winning a lot, that becomes its own challenge. It is a challenge every tennis player WANTS, but it is still a challenge.

A foremost situation in which this challenge is magnified bit Garin, Pella, and Berrettini in the backside on Wednesday: carrying a large workload to a major tournament and the demands of five-set tennis.

Garin, Pella, and Berrettini had either reached or come close to career-high rankings in recent weeks. Garin burst onto the scene in Houston and Munich with multiple ATP Tour titles. Pella reached the Monte Carlo and Barcelona quarterfinals, then beat Daniil Medvedev in Madrid. Berrettini — who lost to Garin in the Munich final — won in Budapest and then beat Alexander Zverev in Rome, making the round of 16.

On an ATP Tour in which so many players are stagnating (remember, Kevin Anderson and Juan Martin del Potro are STILL in the top 10 despite being inactive for much of 2019 — that should tell the story in itself), Garin, Pella and Berrettini were able to rise: Garin into the main draw in Paris, Pella into a top-20 seed at Roland Garros, Berrettini into a seeded position. They had all earned their way into more advantageous positions at a major tournament than they had been accustomed new. This was new for them.

What do we always say about tennis? Many things, but in this case, one thing in particular: You can’t fully prepare for new circumstances. This sport has a way of forcing players to learn how to suffer at a new height before they can master how to handle such a level of status on tour.

Becoming more of a target for the opposition; managing a larger workload; running into fresher opponents at significant tournaments — these were the burdens Garin, Pella, and Berrettini faced on Wednesday.

What made the task harder for each of them was that their opponents, as a result of having won fewer matches this clay season, were comparatively more rested. Garin played Stan Wawrinka, who lost his first matches in both Rome and Geneva. Pella played Corentin Moutet, a non-factor in the clay season and therefore a player light on match play. Berrettini played Casper Ruud, who had not done the same heavy lifting the Italian had performed in multiple European cities.

A point of clarification: Does this automatically mean Garin, Pella, and Berrettini lost because they had played more tennis than their opponents? No. Garin ran into a good version of Wawrinka on clay. Most men won’t beat that version of Stan. Moutet found good form, as did Ruud. It’s not as though these matches were one-person stories based solely on the losers; that denies the winners the credit they deserve.

The point which remains, though, is that this WAS a relatively if not entirely new situation for Garin, Pella, and Berrettini. Combine the newness of their situation with the reality that they had played comparatively more tennis than their opponents. Then combine those realities with the reality of five-set tennis. A lot of work had already been done this clay season; then came Roland Garros with its heavy workload demands on every player.

If you had not been used to playing large amounts of tennis, and you then started to play large amounts of tennis, and you then arrived at a major tournament in a position of newfound prominence, you would probably find it hard to instantly find the right mix of relaxation and energy needed to flourish. It is doable, but not easy.

It generally requires a learning curve before mastering the process at a later point in time.

Cristian Garin, Guido Pella, and Matteo Berrettini can lament that they lost in the second round of Roland Garros. They shouldn’t lament how they played.

Let’s see if they can obtain similar positions 12 months from now at Roland Garros in 2020. If they suffer the same kinds of losses, maybe they can be disappointed in their performances, not just their results.

In 2019, only the results — not their level of play — should elicit a frown.

Tennis is far too cruel and challenging to make writers criticize athletes after every loss.

Sometimes, a loss is simply a cruel reality of sports, not an indictment of an athlete or team.

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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