Tennis is a cruel beast — we know that — but our most immediate awareness of that truth comes more from the wrenching pain of a close loss in a huge match.
Consider Ivo Karlovic, who played some of the best tennis of his life but, after 3 hours and 48 minutes, had nothing to show for it. One point away from breaking Kei Nishikori at 4-4 in the fifth set, and then three points from victory at 7-6 in the final-set super tiebreaker with two serves coming, Karlovic couldn’t win those final points. When we think of the cruelty of tennis, Karlovic’s experience on Thursday most immediately comes to mind.
That is a specific TENNIS-created wound, where you are one point away from controlling your fate, or three points away from actually winning, and then the magic stops just when you had put yourself so close to the holy grail. Tennis is unique relative to other sports in that way. The untimed nature of tennis and the server’s potential to control points both fed into the frustrations Karlovic absorbed as he walked off the court a loser.
Beyond the wins and losses, though, tennis is cruel in that when an athlete gets injured, the impact is far bigger than in team sports, when a capable backup can minimize the effect of a starter being hurt. (Obviously, this isn’t always the case. If LeBron James gets injured, his team suffers, period. We are seeing this with the Los Angeles Lakers. For role players who come off the bench, though, an athlete’s injury might not have much of an effect on a team at all. You get the point.)
In tennis, if the athlete is appreciably injured or ill, that’s the ballgame — not 100 percent of the time, but certainly in most cases, and even more certainly over the course of a full tournament as opposed to one match.
We have seen players win individual matches in spite of cramps or vomiting or pronounced physical limitations. Once in a great while, the player who overcomes physical suffering wins a major — think of Pete Sampras at the 1996 U.S. Open after he survived Alex Corretja, or Roger Federer in 2012 at Wimbledon after enduring the colder days of the tournament and back problems which almost finished him against Xavier Malisse in round four. Generally, though, we can appreciate the point: Injuries in tennis, compared to team sports, carry more finality in tournaments and totality in affecting careers.
Kei Nishikori, Juan Martin del Potro, and Milos Raonic have been the three most unlucky players of this decade on the injury front. When we try to imagine what their careers would have been like with few to no injuries, it is painful for us as commentators or fans to absorb the enormity of that realization. We are all left wondering, “What might have been?”
More precisely, though, we are all left wondering about the cruelty of fate.
Nishikori, Delpo and Raonic have failed to win at a higher plateau not exclusively because of what they failed to do AS TENNIS PLAYERS. Yes, they have failed in a tennis-specific sense to some degree, but not entirely. Injuries, we can readily understand, are so brutal and cruel because they deprive us — and the athletes themselves — of a sense of what they could have done as tennis players.
Their tennis didn’t always fail — sometimes, yes, but not always. Sometimes, their tennis was up to the task, or at the very least, their level of tennis put them in position to achieve richly… only for their bodies to betray them. This is why injuries cut so deeply in tennis. It is cruel for reasons that go beyond the scoreboard.
At the 2019 Australian Open, Thursday gave us three very clear examples of how the limitations of the body are forcing us to suspend judgment of careers for reasons other than pure tennis acumen and prowess.
Hyeon Chung, a 2018 Australian Open semifinalist, is a shell of the man who was so luminous in the first three months of last season. The long road he must travel to regain his former status was made plain in a four-set loss to Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Yes, Herbert is a fine player who has worked damn hard to make himself into an R-32-level player at major tournaments. Full credit to him. Yet, it is impossible to avoid noticing that like fellow 2018 Aussie Open semifinalist Kyle Edmund, Chung has faced a litany of physical problems since his dazzling winter of 2018. We would all love to evaluate Chung and Edmund as tennis players, but that just isn’t realistic right now. They need time to recover in the holistic and dualistic way athletes must: harnessing both the mind and body, integrating them into the seamless machine which can perform at a peak level. Tactics and execution take a back seat to that necessary process of integration which needs to recur in Chung and Edmund this year.
It is little different for Dominic Thiem, who had to retire early in his second-round match against Alexei Popyrin. Thiem felt ill and was shown taking pills from doctors during the match.
Sure, I and everyone else who follows tennis wanted to see where Thiem’s hardcourt game stood at the start of the season. This Australian Open was highly significant when viewed through that prism. Now, though? Nothing can really be said about where Thiem’s game stands. This was a black hole in that regard, and so we have to wait until Indian Wells to get a better appreciation of Thiem’s game on tennis’s most widely-used surface. Bummer.
Finally — and not least in this equation — consider WTA teenager Bianca Andreescu, a rising Canadian player who made noise in the warm-up tournaments before the Australian Open. Andreescu beat Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, and Hsieh Su-Wei on her road to the Auckland final. On Thursday at the Australian Open, Andreescu gave everything she had against Anastasija Sevastova, but ran into a brick wall early in the third set when her back clearly affected her.
Andreescu came through the qualifying rounds in both Auckland and in Melbourne to make the main draw in those two tournaments, so she has been playing a TON of tennis at age 18. Credit Sevastova for overcoming a break deficit early in the third set and then saving four break points to get a 2-1 lead and stem the tide after Andreescu had won five straight games to completely change the direction of the match. Nevertheless, the final outcome was based more on attrition than anything else. It is the same empty feeling one has when trying to size up Chung, or Edmund, or Thiem.
Tennis injuries are central to the sport in ways that don’t always apply to team sports. The cruelty of tennis is not just a scoreboard-centric matter. It hurts — literally for the athletes, figuratively for fans — when the human body is depleted.
The fact that there are only eight weeks in a year when major tennis tournaments are played makes the timing of tennis injuries especially merciless. NFL seasons, as physically destructive as they are to athletes’ bodies, last five months. Being injured for two weeks is a season-killing event only if it happens at the very end of the regular season (four months into that five-month period) or at the start of the playoffs (four and a half weeks into that period).
In tennis, however, being injured or ill — or in Chung’s case, rusty because of prior injuries — during the two weeks of a major tournament robs a player of the moments s/he looks forward to more than any other.
This is the exquisite torment felt by some prominent tennis professionals at the 2019 Australian Open. Keep them in your thoughts.