It is not a profoundly original sports observation, but it is a consistently important one: The way in which you win often matters as much as the win itself.
To be sure, this isn’t always true. Consider the upcoming NFC and AFC Championship Games in America’s National Football League. A lot of players who have spent their lives trying to make the Super Bowl are one win away from that glittering goal. They won’t give a hoot about HOW they win. They won’t care how elegant or clean a victory is. They will take the ugliest, luckiest win over the most beautiful and gallant loss. The way in which a team wins won’t matter this coming Sunday in the Louisiana Superdome of New Orleans or Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
However, there are plenty of situations in which the way a team or athlete wins is very important. In team sports, a dramatically rebuilt roster – filled with players who are not familiar playing together – needs to arrive at a moment early in its season when it realizes it can display toughness, cohesion and similar qualities under adverse circumstances. When a team wins a tough game in the early stages of its evolutionary process, it can gain the confidence it needs to realize that it can function well and ultimately succeed. Winning a game in which everything naturally and easily falls into place is certainly enjoyable, but the win forged in the face of profound adversity convinces that locker room – and everyone in it – that a team is truly built to last and can cultivate the resources of a champion.
In single-athlete sports such as tennis or golf, there might be an ATP 250 tournament or a third-tier golf event with no pressure in which an athlete sails through the week and every shot sings with perfection. It is certainly good to have these moments, but do they indicate stardom at the highest level?
The way in which a solo athlete wins becomes important at a certain stage in a career. That athlete needs to know s/he can walk over the hot coals of hardship and still beat a distinguished opponent who presents a substantial challenge. When a young player can solve that kind of puzzle, s/he can much more realistically expect to develop the confidence and trust needed to master huge moments and conquer the cauldron of elite-level competition.
Very simply, then, two young Americans took big forward steps in their careers on Day 3 of the 2019 Australian Open.
Yes, beating Kevin Anderson is huge for Frances Tiafoe regardless of circumstances, and handling Gael Monfils was also going to mean a lot for Taylor Fritz regardless of the specific details accompanying such a conquest, but the ways in which those two Americans pulled off their wins means just as much as the results themselves. Young players need to taste the pain and the difficulty of effort in the face of robust opposition and the constant presence of pressure. Tiafoe and Fritz walked into the belly of the beast and did not wilt. That means so much to a growing athlete.
Tiafoe was down a set and a break to a two-time major finalist who was just coming off an ATP 250 title in Pune. It seemed he was a goner against Anderson as most people predicted. Yet, from the rubble of the first 1.5 sets, Tiafoe found a way to lock in on Anderson’s serve and repeatedly break it, getting lots of balls back on return and not allowing Kando to collect huge numbers of cheap points. Tiafoe dominated the second and third sets before breaking serve at 5-5 in the fourth to serve for the match. He clearly got nervous – a necessary step in a tennis player’s development; the nerves can’t be eliminated so much as conquered – and fell behind 15-40. He then saved two break points and served out the match.
Sure, it would have been great if Tiafoe had played the way Fernando Gonzalez played in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 2007 Australian Open, when basically every shot was perfect and virtually nothing went wrong. What tennis player WOULDN’T like that to happen? Yet, winning like this has to give Tiafoe so much positive reinforcement at a time in his career when he really needs it. Maybe he will take advantage of a workable draw in the coming rounds, and maybe he won’t. The main point is that he has secured the kind of win which he can draw from throughout 2019 and, beyond that, his entire future. It is a big forward step regardless of what he does in the third round on Friday.
It is not that different for Fritz. Yes, beating 2019 Gael Monfils is not as big a deal as beating 2019 Kevinn Anderson, but Monfils and Anderson played a very evenly-matched Wimbledon match last summer, so it’s not as though Monfils has lost the ability to play tennis; he is still quite formidable and can still summon forth the ol’ Monfils Magic on any given day.
Fritz let the second set slip away. He faced stacks and stacks of break points against his serve, with Monfils – a quality returner – consistently generating chances to take control. Fritz was pushed and pushed and pushed some more.
He didn’t crack, and he eventually closed the door.
Rather than hammering Monfils with 2, 3 and 2 ease, this four-set win finished off with a 7-5 tiebreaker should give Fritz a much more encouraging message about his coping skills as a player. Fritz can play Roger Federer knowing that if the scoreboard gets tight late in a set, he has the resources needed to pull through. No, of course he isn’t in good position to pull off the upset, but he has grown as a player. Just like Tiafoe, he has something very tangible and important to carry from Australia into the rest of his career, regardless of how the third round plays out.
The way in which a young athlete or a new and uncertain team wins a competition is often important. We will see, in the course of time, how important these American victories will prove to be.