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U.S. Open

RBA — Reminders of Balance in Athletics

Matt Zemek

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Jerry Lai -- USA TODAY Sports

Of all the losses by seeded men’s players at the U.S. Open on Tuesday, the one by Roberto Bautista-Agut seems to be to be the most significant one.

You could make a strong argument for Karen Khachanov as well, but Bautista-Agut stands out more for a few reasons:

First, RBA is in his early 30s, whereas Khachanov is still in his early-to-mid 20s and does have some time to realistically improve his habits, responses and — ultimately — results.

Second, RBA was in the midst of his best year as a professional, having made the semifinals of Wimbledon and cracked the top 10 for the first time in his career.

This was a prime period for RBA, who was given a draw which — in light of Dominic Thiem’s unfortunate virus and his subsequently drained performance in a loss to Thomas Fabbiano — suggested that a run to the U.S. Open semifinals was very possible.

Everything was lined up for RBA… who then took a break lead in the fifth set against Mikhail Kukushkin and lost four straight games to fall out of the tournament.

A good veteran player, having his best year, with a chance to make a run… and he loses in the first round. That is a portrait of frustrating inconsistency, even in the midst of prosperity and improvement.

Bautista Agut should be saluted for improving his tennis and reaching significant personal milestones this year. Yet, it is not as though his transformation has been as far-ranging as one might think it ought to be.

Bautista Agut, even in his best year, did not make the quarterfinals or better at a majority of the four majors (only two).

Presented in the context of the Big 3, we can obviously see the contrast.

Yet, as one astute commentator noted, the contrast with a lower tier of tennis players from the past 15 years was also apparent:

The tweet above is relevant particularly in relationship to Bautista Agut, Fabio Fognini, and older players. It is not meant to reflect on the ATP Next Gin (Pass The Alcohol, Please!) nearly as much. To be more precise, one should not draw overly broad conclusions about Stefanos Tsitsipas (21) or Felix Auger-Aliassime (19).

The above tweet about Berdych, Ferrer, et. al., is comparatively more salient for Danill Medvedev (23) and Karen Khachanov (23), who are approaching their mid-20s and, accordingly, have fewer excuses for failing to become regular quarterfinal-level players at the majors.

When we speak about a “regular” quarterfinal player at the majors, though, are we referring to all four majors in a year? It’s a fair question. To me, I don’t think four quarters in a season has to be the standard.

It would be a start for ATP Next Gin and even for Dominic Thiem (who, again, exited the U.S. Open not because of bad tennis, but because his body was felled by a virus) if they could make two major quarters per year on a consistent basis. (Thiem did that in 2018, but not in any previous season, and not in 2019.)

Three would be a good goal to shoot for.

If a player fails to make a quarterfinal at one of the four majors in a year, that’s not particularly alarming or worrisome.

Don’t let the Big 3 distort expectations of normal (mortal) tennis players.

Unconvinced?

Look at the major-tournament histories of some very accomplished players, including two legends of the game.

Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker are genuine legends, both with six major championships. You can see in their profiles that they both went through multiple years IN their prime periods in which they suffered early defeats at multiple majors in the same calendar year.

Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick — both with one major title apiece — wouldn’t qualify as legends, but they were both former World No. 1 players, something few other players can claim. That achievement puts them in rare company. They were well above-average tennis players.

They went through pronounced ups and downs, too. Ferrero’s height didn’t last as long, but it remains that his height — his elite year in 2003 — produced only three major quarterfinals, not four, and only two semifinals.

Roddick — in 2005, 2006 and 2009 — reached a major final and failed to make three major quarterfinals within that same calendar year.

This was not a player on par with Borna Coric or Nikoloz Basilashvili, someone who has yet to make a dent at ANY major tournament. This was a player who reached five major finals and 10 semifinals. “Relentless year-long consistency at the majors” would not rate as an entirely accurate portrait of his major-tournament career.

For most mortals, ups and downs are part of the reality of major-tournament tennis over a full year.

Roberto Bautista-Agut should be disappointed in his loss at the U.S. Open, but he does offer a sobering reminder that the Big 3’s standards should not be applied to everyone else.

RBA stands for “Reminders of Balance in Athletics,” especially tennis.

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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