They might not know it, but Pablo Carreno Busta and Nikoloz Basilashvili are teaching important lessons about tennis — and not in a way which makes them look smaller.
Carreno Busta and Basilashvili, who both lost in the first round of the Madrid Masters on Monday, are showing why some of their peers on the ATP Tour stand taller.
We are not going to dump on Pablo or Niko here. The results speak for themselves in 2019. Carreno Busta hasn’t won a main-draw singles match since the Australian Open. He hasn’t won a main-draw match at a Masters 1000 tournament since the round of 16 in Cincinnati (Robin Haase) last August. Basilashvili entered 2019 with so much hope and promise after a strong second half in 2018, but his three best results of the season are Dubai and Doha quarterfinals plus a round-of-16 showing in Miami. His match record at the first four Masters 1000 tournaments of 2019: 2-4.
I won’t spend time being critical of PCB or Niko. I will take this moment to emphasize that both men are 27 years old. They are both at a point when a number of ATP tennis players have begun to learn how to put the pieces together and assemble the best tennis of their lives. Yet, Carreno Busta — who did his heavy climbing two years ago — has to be concerned that he is running out of steam and that he might not be able to regain the place he attained in 2017. Basilashvili has to be wondering if his late-season charge in 2018 can be replicated after starting out slowly in 2019.
Gaining traction and stability has proved to be elusive for both men. This is hardly an original story, so you might be asking, “Okay, so what’s the big lesson here?”
Many valid answers exist, but I will choose — and focus on — this one: PCB and Basil show why, for all of their disappointments in the upper reaches of ATP competition, players such as Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, or Roberto Bautista Agut and John Isner, have found comparatively higher rooms in the great mansion of tennis.
Layers of players exist in rooms within this large mansion which have no oceanfront view or southern exposure to the warm sun — those are the rooms the Big 3 inhabit, at the top of the mansion’s five-story vertical climb. Yet, those are still comfortable rooms in a mansion in a cozy and upscale part of a coastal town.
One would also be correct in saying that Carreno Busta — with his 2017 U.S. Open semifinal — and Basilashvili, with a Hamburg title and the memory of engaging Rafael Nadal in a long mid-tournament slugfest at the U.S. Open, have forged moments they will cherish forever.
Nevertheless, when we see good tennis players fail to gain long-term traction at age 27, it is worth noting not just the failures, but the relative successes of other players on tour.
Not everyone can be like the Big 3. Not everyone can be the Golden State Warriors or Tiger Woods.
That is true.
PCB and Niko also show us that not everyone can be Kei Nishikori or Milos Raonic.
The mansion of tennis has many rooms, many levels at which one can be successful.
Reaching the highest level and the fanciest room in the mansion is the dream of every tennis professional, but the struggles of some players remind us that a mid-level room — while not offering complete and total riches — isn’t the worst place to be, either.
Perspective always helps, especially when one doesn’t have that oceanfront view with southern exposure.