When Dominic Thiem — now the Barcelona champion after a win over Daniil Medvedev on Sunday — defeated Rafael Nadal in Saturday’s semifinals, I reacted in multiple ways. One of my main and central reactions was to question if Thiem could beat Nadal in Paris at Roland Garros. One of my other main reactions was to note that Nadal was still working his way back into full fitness and playing shape, and that he had a full month to build back his game for Roland Garros.
What is the common thread in those two reactions? Roland Garros. What is a larger theme emerging from my reactions? I connected the Barcelona result to both men’s fortunes in the near future. The big picture was very much on my mind.
I don’t regret looking at the big picture. In fact, I think it’s very important to look at the big picture after a noteworthy match ends. A longer journey transcends the immediate occasion; human beings tend to be prisoners of the moment, and they often think that what they just saw represents the most defining aspect of reality as they perceive it.
Sometimes, the present moment IS the most defining, but it is often true that we need to step back and make sure that what we just witnessed isn’t being met with an overreaction. A big-picture perspective — also a perspective on the most important tournaments of the tennis season — is a necessary part of what I do. Moreover, lots of people are naturally interested in wondering if this match, or this tournament, is an indicator of what will happen at the next major tournament on the calendar, whenever that major tournament might occur.
The big picture helps. It is good to constantly put that into the public domain.
Yet, in my emphasis on the big picture, I freely admit that I can miss the smaller pictures. If “miss” is too severe a characterization, I definitely underemphasize the value of the here and now.
In my haste to tell readers what I think a match means for a tournament which will start in a month, I neglect to tell them what a match means right now. If my mind is always thinking several weeks ahead, it is less conditioned to appreciate what happened today.
Following team sports is a journey in which various slumps or struggles during the regular season will be completely forgotten if the team does well in the playoffs. Team sports represent a “big picture” endeavor, in that there is clearly an appointed time — the playoffs — when performance is measured and evaluated more than at any other time of year.
Tennis is a tricky sport to compare to team sports. On one hand, the four major tournaments are kinda like the playoffs, but of course, there are FOUR majors, not one. This isn’t a sport in which there are six straight months of uninterrupted “normal” competition and then a point in time when the big action takes place. Tennis has three different seasons in the middle of its year — clay, grass, North American hardcourts — which lead up to a huge (major) tournament. Tennis has a collection of self-renewing cycles, not one cycle with an A, then B, structure.
This is why tennis promotes the smaller pictures and not just the big picture. The tours provide so many circumstances in which opportunities exist for players to make advancements and win trophies.
Dominic Thiem took advantage of circumstances against Rafa and the rest of the Barcelona field. Sure, we can wonder what it means for Paris, but in the meantime, we can say that Thiem — who has, to put it mildly, not always pounced on opportunities to collect trophies — is getting better at closing down tournaments and finishing what he started.
Paris can wait. This smaller picture of achievement and progress can be allowed to be seen only for what it is, at least for a day or three.