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Stefanos Tsitsipas and the Reality of Competitive Arrogance

Matt Zemek

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Pierre Lahalle of Presse Sports for USA TODAY Sports

The tennis career of Stefanos Tsitsipas is just getting started, much as the political career of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is just getting started. Young people don’t deserve to be shielded from criticism. Moreover, no one benefits if they are.

If you’re playing in the big leagues in any realm — be it professional tennis or the United States Congress — you have to face the scrutiny and handle the pressure of the job. Not asking young athletes or politicians tough questions, not requiring them to be professionals in a larger sense, doesn’t promote the public’s best interests. A professional athlete needs to be accountable to the public in his sport. On an even more important level and in a more urgent way, a young politician needs to demonstrate and practice good governance to her constituency in her congressional district, and to the national audience on whose behalf she is trying to advocate for various policies.

When they make mistakes, they need to own them, and it is perfectly fair for them to be called out by the press or by fans, who in politics are better seen as constituents.

Here, though, is the fundamental limitation connected to criticism of young professionals, at least in comparison to older ones: While mistakes aren’t trivial, and while mistakes can often be significant enough to merit profound concern from media outlets or outside observers, young professionals generally deserve to be cut some slack.

Note the word “generally.” This is not something which ALWAYS applies. If the mistake is severe enough, “youthful ignorance” can’t be used as an excuse.

I am referring, more or less, to the kinds of mistakes which are not earthshaking and don’t require extensive investigations. These are not scandals. They are missteps. Again, they aren’t irrelevant or unimportant matters, but they aren’t front-page headlines or alarming indications of highly problematic conduct on the part of public figures.

For Ocasio-Cortez, this kind of mistake was the rollout of her Green New Deal plan. You can love the plan or hate it or have an attitude somewhere in between, but the bottom line is that the rollout could have been handled better than it was. It was not a clean process free of hiccups, awkward moments, or poor management of internal documents from her political shop. Her staff either learned a few things about playing in the big leagues, or her staff needs to be replaced with more seasoned pros and operatives, one of the two.

This is something which needs to be addressed by AOC. It is not, however, a scandal or grave sin. It is part of a young politician’s evolutionary process of learning how things are supposed to be done… which often becomes easier to grasp when lots of details aren’t fully grasped. Experience is the foremost teacher, and when a rollout of a plan takes a wrong turn, a young politician learns how to get it right the next time. There are likely to be a lot of “next times” in Ocasio-Cortez’s career.

Being 29 as a politician is akin to being 20 as a tennis player… which is how old Stefanos Tsitsipas is.

The equivalent of a mistake in revealing the Green New Deal is making an arrogant comment after losing a tennis match. It is not a scandal or a sin, but the teaching power of experience will tell the author of an arrogant quote that, in the course of time, it is better to either rephrase one’s words or withhold them rather than let loose with the tongue in such blunt fashion.

Consider these two quotes.

Quote No. 1:

“I don’t think he played that well. I think the match was absolutely pathetic on all levels. Today was an absolute pathetic match. I don’t even think he played well.”

Quote No. 2:

“He didn’t do anything on court. Just put the ball inside the court. All by my mistakes. He played very simple tennis. Nothing crazy. Nothing special.”

Quote No. 1 came from a player who lost to Tsitsipas in Toronto. That player was obviously Alexander Zverev, whose words gained quite a lot of traction on social media. Fans eat up these kinds of quotes and feast on the drama of a player so clearly being unimpressed by what his opponent achieved. #TennisTwitter lights up like a Christmas tree when these quotes hit the timeline and spread like wildfire.

Quote No. 2 came from Tsitsipas after Damir Dzumhur dumped him out of Rotterdam on Wednesday. Of course, you can see the arrogance dripping from those words, especially in the words “simple” and “nothing special.” I lost more than he won.

Tsitsipas stood on the other side of a match relative to Zverev.

The 20-year-old Greek certainly has some zen qualities which enable him to confront big moments with poise, but we can all see that Tsitsipas is not a finished product, or anywhere particularly close.

Moreover, that’s okay. More precisely, he SHOULDN’T BE a finished product. He’s 20! Zverev, still just 21 for a few more months, shouldn’t be expected to have it all figured out, either. These guys are arrogant.

Yeah, and?

So?

What about that?

This is not outrageous behavior. This is not a display of appalling manners. This is nothing more than the natural, almost universal product (with 17-year-old Monica Seles, 17-year-old Boris Becker, 19-year-old Rafael Nadal, and a few select others being the conspicuous exceptions to the rule) of a young professional athlete learning how to carry competitive arrogance in an appropriate way.

Roger Federer had this kind of competitive arrogance. Novak Djokovic did. This didn’t “excuse” their statements or make them acceptable in ways Zverev’s or Tsitsipas’ statements aren’t. It merely reminds us that professional athletes NEED egos. They need to carry a certain competitive arrogance inside them.

I use the term “competitive arrogance” again and again because this is not arrogance in a behavioral or moral sense. When citizens live and coexist in contexts removed from their public lives — such as at a grocery store, trying to buy bread and milk before a snowstorm arrives in Seattle — there is no need for “competitive arrogance.” The display of arrogance in such a setting would almost always be inappropriate and be completely uncalled for.

“Competitive arrogance” is the fuel in an athlete’s tank. He or she needs to have a large-sized belief on court, trusting one’s ability to achieve massive feats in the course of time. Giving credit to opponents yet still nurturing this “positive arrogance” is not easy to do. It can only come with time for most athletes.

So yeah, would it have been better for Tsitsipas to shut up or use better words after his loss to Dzumhur in Rotterdam? Of course. Would it have been better for Zverev to have not insisted that Tsitsipas played poorly? Sure.

Were these mistakes? Yes.

Were they scandals or sins? No.

These are just a couple young guys growing up and trying to figure out how to be the best tennis players they can be.

Those Federer and Djokovic guys did all right, and in their “old age” as tennis competitors, they appreciate what other players go through.

One day, Tsitsipas (and Zverev) will reach the same place.

It’s okay to be arrogant and have an ego, as an athlete or as a politician.

Just learn in the course of time, and make sure your mistakes aren’t too serious. No scandals. No huge moral failures.

Learn. Grow. Own your mistakes.

It’s okay, folks. It’s not a crisis or a referendum on a young person’s character.

If you’re expecting perfection from young public figures as they grow up in the media spotlight, you’re expecting too much.

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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