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Hurts so bad: Pliskova and Raonic sing the saddest song

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

This is a nostalgic time for the world in one specific way: The 50th anniversary of humankind’s first moon landing will soon be celebrated on July 20. If you were to recall a breakup song from that era, you could do much worse than submit “Hurts So Bad,” released in late 1964 and turned into a hit by multiple artists, beginning with Little Anthony and the Imperials, then by The Lettermen.

It is the song Karolina Pliskova and Milos Raonic can’t shake on Manic Monday at Wimbledon.

Karolina Pliskova and Milos Raonic occupy different positions relative to their respective tours, but they both are searching for a first major title, a reality which knits together the two tennis players.

As I wrote last week, when big-name tennis players lose, it is often hard to assess the result in a larger context. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as I wrote in that article I just linked to, the body of achievement owned by a high-profile losing player will affect my assessment of a loss, how much it means, and how damaging it is.

Angelique Kerber — the central figure of that column last Thursday after she lost to Lauren Davis — has won three major titles. That is a tremendous body of work in the latter stages of her career. I was very critical of Kerber when she struggled at majors before her 2016 breakthrough, but after her luminous 2016 season, then her 2018 bounce-back at Wimbledon after an immensely difficult 2017 season in which nothing went right, Kerber has earned a large measure of respect. She transformed and elevated her career to a place where early stumbles are “products of an understandable inconsistency” rather than “damning career failures.”

More precisely, Kerber’s inconsistency became a form of inconsistency in which her best moments delivered important titles. That enables her inconsistency to be seen in a more positive light. It also means that when she does fail — as was the case at Wimbledon this year versus Davis — the failure is far easier to accept than for many of her peers on tour.

Peers such as Karolina Pliskova.

It is enough as it is that Pliskova has never won a major. More than that, however, Pliskova had never reached a Wimbledon QUARTERFINAL, let alone a later round. Last year marked her first trip to Manic Monday. She has made the semifinals at the other three majors, but Wimbledon has been a complete disaster for her.

When she got past Hsieh Su-Wei in a very tough match on Friday — against an opponent who is known for springing upsets AND for being very tricky to play against — I thought she had turned the corner. 

Remember that Naomi Osaka had to escape Hsieh early in the Australian Open before winning that title earlier this year. Pliskova overcame the kind of challenge champions have to manage. She got two full days off over the weekend and played an opponent, Karolina Muchova, who played with wrapping around one of her thighs and who had needed a medical timeout in her previous match.

Muchova is a wondrously talented player who is very fun to watch. Moreover, Muchova played really well in what was a quality match. Muchova deserves a ton of credit for knocking Pliskova out of Wimbledon, 13-11 in the third set.

Yet, previous track records certainly affect how I perceive this match.

It is true that Muchova played well under pressure, including the 11-10 game in the third in which she broke back and created the three-game run she used to win the match.

It is not as though Pliskova shanked three or four balls to get broken in either one of the times she served for the match.

YET: Pliskova relies on her serve. It is the cornerstone of her game. Servers serve well when they must, AND the fact that Pliskova got a second chance to serve out the match magnifies the level of her failure.

Pliskova did not play bad games when she got broken. Muchova had more to do with those games than Pliskova did, if we are being ruthlessly objective and honest.

YET: While Pliskova did not play badly, she just as clearly played “not well enough.”

If you want to write your name in the Great Book Of Tennis History and win a major title, you have to be good enough — not always great, but good enough — when the moment asks something of you.

This match was defined much more by Muchova’s excellence under pressure than Pliskova’s inadequacies.

YET: Because Pliskova has her specific track record — overall and at Wimbledon — and not Angelique Kerber’s particular history, the enormity of failure is much greater.

Milos Raonic exists in a very similar space.

This match was more about Guido Pella’s terrific tennis. Pella is playing the best tennis of his life, and he has now beaten three former Wimbledon finalists — Raonic, Marin Cilic, and Kevin Anderson — over the past two years. Pella was ON FIRE with his returns at the end of the fourth set and in much of the fifth set. He was clearly the better player in the last 75 minutes of this match.

However:

Raonic doesn’t have a major title. He depends on his serve. (Sound familiar here?) Unlike Pliskova, he has actually done well before at Wimbledon. This is CLEARLY the one major where he has a legitimate chance of making the semis or the final on a regular basis.

If you are as good as your hopes and aspirations, if you want to be seen as a top-tier tennis player, you have to hold when serving for a match.

Yes, again, Pella played a strong return game with Raonic serving at 5-3, and while Raonic missed an easy shot at 30-40 to get broken, Pella applied pressure on Raonic’s serve. That played a role in Raonic’s lack of crispness at the time.

YET: Raonic, like Pliskova, didn’t find the big serves an elite server needs to call forth in a moment of truth. Very much like Pliskova, Raonic didn’t play a bad game, but he did indeed play a “not good enough” game.

If Raonic had Andy Murray’s three major titles, much as if Pliskova had Kerber’s three majors or even Victoria Azarenka’s two trophies, this loss wouldn’t sting nearly as much. The evaluations wouldn’t be as harsh.

When you have everything to prove, however — as Raonic and Pliskova do — more is asked.

What hurts so bad, then, is not just the failure itself, but the context in which it occurs. While it is true that Raonic was almost certain to run into Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, whereas Pliskova had a very manageable path to the final — a significant difference between the two players — both Raonic and Pliskova are united by career journeys in which ultimate triumphs have eluded them. That one burden — that one gap on the resume — hangs over the kinds of moments they faced when serving for matches on Manic Monday.

Therefore, the pressure they feel is greater.

The weight of not crossing the finish line is much more oppressive.

My empathy for them is much larger and more expansive than it would be if they had already won a major tournament.

It hurts so bad, and while I give all the credit to Karolina Muchova and Guido Pella on the occasion of their first major quarterfinals, my heart goes out to Pliskova and Raonic, two players who are good enough to be seen as contenders, but whose careers keep leading them down the road of heartbreak.

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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