It is one of the best and purest aspects of tennis: This is an “earned opportunity” sport. Look at the 2019 U.S. Open. You will notice how many players have earned important career opportunities… or stand one win away from doing so.
One theme I constantly talk about these days — especially with the younger generations of ATP players — is the need not to win big titles, but to take the first necessary steps toward becoming a championship-level player.
One of those first core steps — an essential building block in the climb to the top — is to collect experiences against the elite players in big moments.
Sure, Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985 when he had never previously encountered the pressure of the latter stages of a major tournament. Mats Wilander at Roland Garros in 1982 and Michael Chang in Paris in 1989 are similar examples… but they are exceptional cases, not the norm.
For most tennis players, one has to learn how to play Novak Djokovic in a best-of-five match before understanding what it takes to beat him. Consider the man who has earned an opportunity to face Djokovic on Sunday: Stan Wawrinka.
Stan defeated Djokovic at the 2014 Australian Open, en route to the first of three major titles which were ALL won after defeating Djokovic in the tournament… but he had to first suffer a close loss to Nole in the 2013 U.S. Open semifinals. He needed that lesson to directly show him what he had to do.
Stan applied that lesson a few months later in Melbourne. The rest is history.
Earning encounters with prominent opponents gives tennis its marvelously meritocratic identity.
You want to play Djokovic? You will get the chance if you can beat the Feliciano Lopezes and Dominik Koepfers of the world first.
Many people in the tennis world can’t wait for Daniil Medvedev to face Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, but Club Med first has to beat Koepfer, two days after almost losing to Feliciano Lopez late Friday night. Medvedev’s talents are evident, but so is his lack of familiarity with this situation — being a favorite in Week 1 at a major, with all eyes fixed on his responses to tough situations.
Medvedev will not be expected to beat Djokovic, but if he can merely play Djokovic and gain another collection of experiences in a five-set match against the Serb — this time, presumably playing with more aggression than in Melbourne in January — Medvedev could set himself up for a breakthrough in 2020.
It would be like Stan, six years earlier.
Other players are also earning opportunities to play elite players — or are close to doing so in New York.
Alexander Zverev, as awful as his 2019 season has been, has virtually no chance to beat Rafael Nadal in a possible quarterfinal… but if he can earn that opportunity to face Rafa, he can gain a fresh understanding of what he needs to get back to the top tier of men’s tennis in 2020.
Coco Gauff earned the right to play Simona Halep at Wimbledon. That was an education for her, something which should enable her to grow and evolve as a tennis player. Similarly, in New York, Gauff has won the right to face Naomi Osaka on a big stage. Learning from the very best is how any professional — not just any athlete — develops into a better practitioner of a craft.
Ash Barty is one win away from earning the right to likely face Serena Williams on Tuesday night in front of more than 23,000 people. Barty might not win that match, but merely having that experience could confirm for her — in a way no coaching instructions or other outside voices can match or replicate — the notion that she belongs on the big stage as a top player.
She could conquer the voices of doubt in her head — or the voices from some in the tennis community — who think she is a World No. 15 player somehow masquerading as World No. 2.
Nearly everywhere you look, a younger player at the U.S. Open is trying to earn — or has already earned — an opportunity to face an elite player and grow from the experience.
So many of the matches you will see this weekend are as big as the potential matchups they could set up. Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Ash Barty, and others might not win the showdowns they could soon create on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, but merely by creating those matchups, they could gain a lot.
Such is the beauty of tennis and this 2019 U.S. Open.