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Australian Open

Karen Khachanov and the Sports Noise Dynamic

Matt Zemek

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John E. Sokolowski -- USA TODAY Sports

Oh great! Here’s Matt tossing out another weird term for me to grapple with. WHAT IS THE SPORTS NOISE DYNAMIC?!

I will tell you.

After the 2019 Australian Open, a prominent tennis writer (in other words, not little ‘ol me — I wish I was prominent) asked in his column if losing in a blowout in a major semifinal was better than an alternative scenario which avoided a blowout loss. This was a reference to Lucas Pouille and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who got destroyed by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, respectively.

I certainly understand the thought process behind the question: If a player gets crushed so thoroughly, it might erode his confidence. I get the concept. However, you can’t learn if you don’t get your backside slapped hard every now and then. It is often — though not always — true that an athlete can’t learn how to win semifinals until s/he loses them. Sports often work like this: You get to a higher level, you lose at that higher level, and then after getting punched several times, you finally figure out how to be tougher, stronger, better. You eventually win. Then YOU become the athlete who smacks down an opponent who is playing a semifinal for the first time. That is often the law of the jungle in all sports, not just tennis.

I understood the question, but please: No, it’s not better to avoid making a major semifinal if the price to pay is a blowout loss in said semifinal.

Plenty of people — not necessarily most people, but a good number of people in a minority group — watched those two men’s Australian Open semifinals and likely laughed at how outclassed Tsitsipas and Pouille were. I didn’t laugh. You didn’t laugh… but plenty of people on this planet likely did. They probably walked away thinking how unprepared those men were for those matches.

A key nuance here: Those matches were played when other singles matches weren’t being played. They had the stage all to themselves, so the weight of defeat was more visible for Tsitsipas and Pouille. A larger percentage of tennis fans saw those matches, compared to a week earlier, when the second and third rounds of the Australian Open were in progress. On a second-round night or a third-round afternoon, many matches are going on at the same time. An individual match not involving Serena or the Big 3 doesn’t have the same centrality in the tennis world.

What does this mean? It can mean many things, but I will choose this particular point: When a promising player — but not a household name (such as the Big 3) — loses at this stage of a tournament, he can escape notice, whereas Tsitsipas and Pouille, by losing on such a big stage in the semifinals, get a lot more criticism because of how visible their losses were.

Phrased in a simpler way: Players who lose decisively in semifinals encounter a much more public undressing, but players who lose in third rounds absorb a much more significant and disappointing loss, creating a far less successful tournament than the losing semifinalists.

Yet, which player(s) received more criticism? The losing semifinalists, not the promising player who lost in the third round when a lot more matches were going on.

This is the Sports Noise Dynamic. It can be applied to various sports.

Team A loses in a very public and visible way, in a high-stakes game it did well to reach. You can’t lose in a big game without MAKING the big game in the first place.

Team B didn’t even make the high-stakes game, though — it had an objectively and substantially inferior season compared to Team A. Yet, because its failure wasn’t as nationally visible, it didn’t get discussed as much. Team A — owning a far better season — nevertheless gets laughed at by a much larger percentage of the sports-fan population in a country or locality because its loss was more visible and memorable.

Tennis With An Accent contributor Briana Foust knows this is exactly what happened to her beloved Clemson Tigers football team in the 2011 season. Clemson achieved really, really well, winning its conference championship and going to the prestigious Orange Bowl game against West Virginia. Clemson, however, lost that Orange Bowl in a humiliating 70-33 defeat. Yet, dozens of other teams never got to a big bowl game, and escaped withering national criticism. Clemson did not escape such criticism, even though it had a very successful year.

That is the Sports Noise Dynamic.

Khachanov won the Bercy Masters, you might recall. Moreover, unlike Jack Sock in 2017, Khachanov went directly through elite competition, chiefly Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic, to win the title. He was a hot topic in the offseason. He was a player to watch in Melbourne. Yet, his third-round loss to Roberto Bautista Agut received a fraction of the global publicity that visited Tsitsipas’s and Pouille’s semifinal losses.

This doesn’t mean Khachanov deserves a ton of criticism. It merely shows that he had a much less successful tournament compared to Tsitsipas and Pouille, but didn’t receive the criticism Stef and Lucas absorbed.

Keep this in mind when calibrating sports criticism and media analysis. Add the Sports Noise Dynamic to your lexicon. That’s why I’m here. 🙂

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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