On the blank canvas of life, so many stories can be written in so many different ways. Human beings long for the epic tale or the rousing thriller, but we can’t — and don’t — always get the romantic happy ending or the unforgettably dramatic crescendo. We are not at our best every day (even Rafael Nadal loses to Dominic Thiem on clay every now and then). Not every morning will transport us into a joyful, sunny place of equilibrium where we always get out of bed the right way, with a smile and a spring in our step. If we could know that life would always sort itself out, we would carry a lot less stress and fear… but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Life is both challenging and rewarding because it doesn’t offer very many guarantees, because it can’t machine-crank happy scenarios or ideal outcomes with relentless consistency. Living through ups and downs — enduring suffering, being at peace with ourselves in our worst moments — is essential to the art of being human.
On Monday at Roland Garros, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez lived well.
He didn’t live perfectly, dropping two straight sets and being down a break in the fourth, but as soon as his opponent — a former French Open champion and three-time major titlist named Stan Wawrinka — let down his guard, Garcia-Lopez was ready to pounce. He got back on serve, made fewer mistakes in a pivotal fourth-set tiebreaker, and bossed the fifth set, outplaying Wawrinka by a wide margin.
The result was hardly shocking — Wawrinka’s body needs time to become a fully functioning mechanism — yet it was anything but guaranteed. Any victory over a player of Wawrinka’s caliber is something to be proud of in any circumstance, but for Garcia-Lopez, the fact that he climbed past Stan — not any other prominent player — carried an extra measure of quiet satisfaction.
This wasn’t a trumpet-blast moment of extraordinary consequence for Garcia-Lopez. He didn’t reach his first-ever major quarterfinal or Masters semifinal (two milestones he has not yet attained). At age 34, it is hard for him or anyone else to expect a substantial rise up the rankings ladder. Everyone will, moreover, remind him that “Stan was not fully healthy,” taking away a large measure of buzz from the moment.
Garcia-Lopez doesn’t care. He shouldn’t.
This moment was very personal for him, specifically because of the many ways life’s stories are written. Wawrinka — rusty or not, healthy or not — means a lot to GGL’s tennis journey in the present moment, and furthermore, he always will.
This was not the first time GGL and Wawrinka had met in the first round of Roland Garros. It was four years ago when the Swiss, having beaten Roger Federer in the Monte Carlo final and riding high after winning the 2014 Australian Open, carried an entirely new aura about himself as he came to Paris. Yet, in round one, Garcia-Lopez convincingly outplayed Wawrinka and stunned him in four sets.
What is the thing tennis fans and observers love to see in upset winners? The ability to back up that victory with more victories and not turn into a pumpkin immediately after the one match in which everything goes right. In 2014 at Roland Garros, Garcia-Lopez did indeed back up his upset with two more triumphs to reach his first-ever fourth round at a major. Wawrinka was the gateway to that new height. Yet, if Stan opened a door for Garcia-Lopez at that 2014 French Open, he closed one several months later.
At the 2015 Australian Open, Garcia-Lopez — playing Wawrinka — let two different sets slip away in tiebreakers. He had Wawrinka in trouble in the fourth set but let him escape with nerve-laden errors in the worst possible situations. The 10-8 tiebreaker loss did more than eliminate Garcia-Lopez from a major. It denied him a first major quarterfinal. Beyond that, the loss — in GGL’s second major fourth round in a span of eight months — shattered the Spaniard’s confidence.
Garcia-Lopez has never been back to the fourth round of a major since that afternoon in Australia. Wawrinka was the man GGL defeated to begin the best stretch of his career… and Stan was also the man who began GGL’s downward slide, which he has never fully recovered from.
This match on Monday — four years after a separate victory over Wawrinka in Paris — was not freighted with the same level of importance or momentousness. The 2014 upset of the then-reigning Australian Open champion sent shockwaves through the tennis world. This one won’t register the same way on the Richter scale — not on a global level.
It is, however, profoundly meaningful for Garcia-Lopez. Stan’s story is intertwined with the Spaniard’s journey. Being able to beat the Swiss one more time at a major tournament might remind GGL of the Australian Open match which got away, but it will likely remind him a lot more of the French Open match which fell into place, initiating the best eight months of Garcia-Lopez’s career.
GGL has a match to prepare for, so the time for sentimentality is not yet at hand. However, when Garcia-Lopez considers his whole career and looks back on the various matches he played, this one will occupy a special place. This match mattered less in terms of career milestones, but a lot more in terms of reminding a professional athlete that near the end of the line, he was able to call forth his better competitive qualities against a player of distinction… and not for the first or only time.
That, truly, is a source of quiet satisfaction.
Photo credit Leslie Billman, http://tennisclix.com .
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)