“How The Other Half Lives” is one of the seminal works of photojournalism, anywhere and anytime. The 1890 book by Jacob Riis put pictures to the agonies suffered by the poor of New York City’s slums and tenements — many of them immigrants to the United States — in the 1880s.
To be very, very sure, a struggling professional tennis player is not an immigrant desperately trying to survive in tattered rags and appalling conditions. Yet, on a tennis tour where the elites make many millions of dollars per year and the expenses needed to get first-class coaching and holistic support are considerable, a life spent on the margins is nevertheless precarious.
First rounds at major tournaments represent the four days per year when a large number of professionals know they will get a decent-size paycheck even if they lose. What makes the moment so urgent for these players if that if they can bag even one win at these four cash-drenched events, they can significantly increase their prize money and bank the added resources they can use to make a slightly better investment here, or to skip a tournament there so that they can get an extra week of rest.
Players not making hugely fat amounts of money often (though not always) feel they have to run to the next tournament to get another check. It is no grand secret or fresh revelation that the more money a player makes, the more she or he can be selective in the tournaments one plays during a season and, on a larger scale, a career.
Tournament results are therefore not just about the status and the pursuit of championships, though that is what every pro athlete sets out to do; they aren’t about the money, either, though that is the bottom line in a bottom-line business.
Tournament results also mean so much to tennis players because they reshape the contours of security. They redraw the boundaries for players and the decisions they make. Knowing one can display more freedom in weekly or yearly decisions is a moment of great liberation for a player. An awareness that one doesn’t have to stay on the treadmill of constant activity, but can instead enjoy one’s earnings a little or devote more time to training or rest, means a lot.
This is a part of why first rounds at major tournaments are so meaningful.
While the Federers and Serenas, the Nadals and Kerbers, the Djokovices and Haleps, are thinking about championships, “How The Other Half Lives” plays out in these round-of-128 matches.
On Day 1 of the 2019 Australian Open, Danielle Collins and Katie Boulter both lived this story in vivid color.
Collins won her first-ever major-tournament main-draw match in six appearances, knocking out 14th-seeded Julia Goerges. Boulter dismissed former Australian Open semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova in the first-ever 10-point final-set tiebreaker at this tournament, taking the historic event by a 10-6 count.
Both women celebrated emphatically after they won. Others in their position would have done the same, but the point to underscore is that for top-five players, a first-round win is normal business.
This was not normal business. This was not as easy or obvious as breathing air.
This was being 10 feet underwater and escaping from chains.
It was an emergence — if only for a day — from “How The Other Half Lives.”
What makes these matches more special for Collins and Boulter, as they celebrate in the locker room:
— Both of their victims were former major semifinalists, players who have reached considerable heights in the sport.
— They were both very close to losing, Collins two points away at the end of the second set, when Goerges served for the match and had 6-5, 30-0, and Boulter three points away when Makarova had 0-15 on Boulter’s serve at 4-5 in the third.
— They both went through rough sequences which could have caused them to crack. Collins lost three break points up 4-2 on Goerges’ serve in the third set. Goerges held for 3-4 and applied significant scoreboard pressure. Collins’ serve had not been a rock of consistency for much of the match, but she held twice to nail down the win.
Boulter led 5-0 in the final-set tiebreak and then lost the next four points. She could have allowed the moment to overwhelm her, and moreover, she thought she had won the match when she reached 7-4 in the tiebreaker. Remember: This is a 10-point breaker, the first of its kind. Boulter absorbed that understandable moment of forgetfulness and finished the job.
Danielle Collins and Katie Boulter aren’t experienced major-tournament winners. These victories might enable them to gain more traction at tennis’s four most important tournaments. They might not.
What matters most, though, is a little more achievement, a little more security, a little more freedom. That’s what first-round wins in majors do for players who haven’t been there before.
“How The Other Half Lives” in tennis can make these matches seem like major finals for the people who win them. This is the other half of the tennis world — not a realm of desperate poverty and humanitarian tragedy, no, but a nonetheless dramatic example of a subgroup’s attempt to move up in a cutthroat world.