You have probably heard the expression in cartoons, sitcoms, or other forms of visual entertainment at some point in your life: “Well don’t just stand there. DO SOMETHING!”
To be sure, elite competitive athletics require constant and vigorous motion. Literally, one cannot stand there in order to win. One must do something.
Yet, on a figurative and powerfully symbolic level, athletes and teams often win not by doing something, but by standing there.
Stand in the arena. Wait. Persist. This doesn’t mean being passive, reactive or timid. It means continuing to represent an obstacle, an impediment, to the opponent’s success AND to the confidence the opponent has in being able to overcome the obstacle on the other side of the playing surface.
“Don’t just do something. STAND THERE!” This represents a flipping of the script, the overturning of the competitive calculus which often applies to tennis matches. We see it ALL the time, and we saw it a few times on a memorable Friday at the 2020 Australian Open.
Roger Federer could not hit through John Millman very consistently. His forehand was a mess. He played a subpar first set. He played below-average tennis from the middle of the fourth set through the early stages of the fifth set. He trailed by a break in the fifth set.
He did, however, stay on the court. Millman beautifully played the role of the obstacle to Federer’s goals for most of the match, but at the very end, Federer won not with a supernova burst of brilliance, but by making fewer mistakes. He became the obstacle. Millman felt the weight of the occasion more than Federer did.
What happened at the end of Federer-Millman applied to the whole of Coco Gauff’s win over Naomi Osaka, another case of a U.S. Open result from the past two years being overturned at the Australian Open. (Wang Qiang defeating Serena Williams marked three recent U.S. Open results being avenged on one day in Melbourne.)
This comment by Christopher Clarey isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does seem misplaced. You can judge for yourself:
Kudos to Coco Gauff. Such a luminous talent, but honestly it's hard to judge her true level from that match. Naomi Osaka imploded
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) January 24, 2020
I wouldn’t argue the claim that Naomi Osaka imploded. I wouldn’t even say that it is hard to judge Coco Gauff’s true level. Again, Clarey isn’t really “wrong” here.
However: Why react to a match in which a 15-year-old dethroned the defending Australian Open champion by questioning the level of that 15-year-old?
If I am writing for the New York Times, or Tennis With An Accent, or any other publication, my first point of emphasis in reaction to Gauff’s win is that a 15-year-old player quickly avenged a decisive loss to a two-time major champion AT a major tournament and did so in straight sets, as the clearly better player.
Does it even matter that the opponent imploded?
Let’s remember this about tennis: As a friend of TWAA, Skip Schwarzman, often likes to say, there are many ways to win points and matches. One of them is to make the other player miss. You don’t get more points for having more winners than the opponent. You don’t get fewer points if you make more errors.
There is no rule or law which says you have to win in a pretty or elegant fashion. There is no rankings system which prioritizes winner-centric tennis players over disciplined defenders. All the points and wins count the same, no matter how you get there.
One can say that if Osaka imploded, Gauff technically didn’t “make” Osaka miss shots. Again, does that even matter?
Gauff already grasps the many different ways a tennis player can win matches. She already understands that while some matches need to be taken from an opponent (when trailing in the third set, for instance, something she has done multiple times at majors), other matches simply need to be received.
Don’t just do something. Stand there. Let the opponent lose the match if the opponent is intent on doing that.
Once more: It might be true that we can’t judge Gauff’s level, but the lead headline is that a 15-year-old athlete already realizes that when an opponent is misfiring, just get out of the way and let it happen. Don’t overcomplicate the matter.
Coco Gauff contains a lot of competitive fire, but she also contains a superabundance of competitive WISDOM, and that’s what emerged against Naomi Osaka, who has shown us that she has what it takes to win major titles.
Matches aren’t just taken. They are also given away. Knowing this tennis truth and then being able to apply it mark Coco Gauff as one of the best competitors on tour… at age 15.
Who cares about her level? Don’t bury the lede.
Just stand there.