The most beautiful sports moments can be beautiful for many different reasons. One of the especially stirring and poignant aspects of a joyful sports moment is the way in which it pleasantly surprises both the athlete and the outside world.
This occurrence can be infused with youth, as was the case with Jelena Ostapenko at last year’s French Open. It can also come near the end of an athlete’s career, in what could reasonably be viewed as the last best chance for an athlete (or sports team) to win a championship. A great tennis example: Andres Gomez was a decent but hardly spectacular player. He made three major quarterfinals in 1984. He made three Roland Garros quarterfinals from 1984 through 1987. Yet, as he entered the 1990 French Open, he had never made a major semifinal, and that 1987 Roland Garros quarterfinal marked his most recent trip to the final eight of a major. He was 30 years old. This was a respectable resume a lot of professionals would accept — think of Leonardo Mayer or Damir Dzumhur — but Gomez resided far from the top tier of his profession, a few notches below the preeminent players of his era. When he won that 1990 Roland Garros title over Andre Agassi in the final, he burst forth in an explosion of joy and wonderment.
Gomez won only one main-draw major tournament match after that moment… which instead of minimizing his feat, actually magnified it, because the achievement became even more improbable. Gomez walked away from his career with a major title in his pocket. He might still be surprised today, 28 years later.
This sense of surprise — “Wow, I really did this — this really did happen!” — attended Amelie Mauresmo’s 2006 Australian Open title. Though not 30 as Gomez was, Mauresmo had seemingly become a player who was hitting her head on a ceiling which was not about to become higher. She made the 1999 Australian Open final before turning 20. She made a handful of major semifinals from 2002 through 2005, but a person named Serena Williams — ever heard of her? — Often stood in the way. With Maria Sharapova playing well at the time, the Williams sisters holding court, Lindsay Davenport cracking the ball, and Justine Henin flourishing, it was hard to fight through the top tier of the WTA Tour. Mauresmo had to wonder, every now and then, if she would be able to break through.
In 2006 in Melbourne, she did. Mauresmo lost the first set to Kim Clijsters in the semifinals but won the second set and stayed on court long enough that Clijsters had to retire midway through the third. Mauresmo defeated Henin in the final to cross the threshold and transform her career. She used the confidence gained in Australia to power her way to a win at Wimbledon (also over Henin in the final) several months later, but Australia was the site of her grand surprise.
A lot like Samantha Stosur in Australia, Mauresmo was not able to deal with home-nation pressure at a major. She reached two Roland Garros quarterfinals but could not go deeper in Paris. The weight of expectation was too great. Mary Pierce figured out how to win a championship before a home crowd, but among French WTA players, she is highly exceptional. Mauresmo — by winning two majors — is also exceptional on a larger level, but not at the French Open. This tournament falls so heavily on the shoulders of its best and most beloved French players.
This leads to the centerpiece of our story, Caroline Garcia.
Last year, Garcia played without suffocating pressure because her whole career — not just her French Open results — fell far short of the mark. Garcia was a known talent in the global tennis community, a lot like many of her French contemporaries on the ATP Tour. Talent can’t win on its own; it has to be married to a clear mind and an understanding of how to cope with scoreboard situations and tour life. Garcia struggled for years… but in 2017 in Paris, she played freely. She found a way to liberate her mind and set aside her burdened history. She made the quarterfinals, and although she lost to Karolina Pliskova, she put up a good fight.
This ability to fight in matches instructively endured for much of the 2017 season. Garcia pushed Jo Konta at Wimbledon. Later in the year in China, she won a number of three-set matches. She responded well to adversity. She outfoxed Elina Svitolina. She found ways to win the kinds of matches she didn’t win in previous years. She carried this newfound resilience into and through the WTA Finals, beating Svitolina in another extended match before mounting a comeback against Caroline Wozniacki and qualifying for the semifinal round, where she pushed Venus Williams before falling in a third set.
Garcia’s 2018 season has not been without its impressive moments. She turned back Maria Sharapova in a battle royale in Stuttgart. She won a few very difficult three-setters at the Australian Open. Garcia certainly hasn’t fallen sharply off the pace in 2018. To a certain extent, she has raised her floor over the course of a full tennis season. Meek first- or second-round exits are now replaced with fourth-round or quarterfinal showings at a number of tournaments. However, there is a difference between raising the floor and raising the ceiling.
Monday at Roland Garros against Angelique Kerber, the good work Garcia has done over the past 12 months was hard to find. In a performance highly reminiscent of other French players over the course of many decades, Garcia crumbled. Full credit to Kerber for making a second major quarterfinal this year — we will have a lot more to say about her when (and after) she plays Simona Halep in a blockbuster quarterfinal — but Garcia barely showed up. Being French, her best patch of play in the match came only after trailing a set and 5-1, when her outlook was bleak and she no longer had much of anything to lose. Garcia leaked errors from start to finish, sometimes bothered by Kerber’s defense but just as often lacking basic focus. Garcia did not respond well to Kiki Bertens’ topspin in Madrid, and when Kerber sent many balls back in her direction on Monday, Garcia became impatient rather than sturdy.
The player who dug in her heels and displayed an iron will in October of 2017 did not appear.
This is the urgent issue for Garcia: When a player makes a push after the U.S. Open, in the latter part of a tennis season — when a lot of peers are comparatively tired — it is tempting to think that a true renaissance is unfolding. Yet, the fact that much of the tour is tired in October means that in order for a genuine rebirth to exist, a successful autumnal player has to show that s/he can perform extremely well in the meat of the tennis season, which is right now.
Garcia, when she loses, doesn’t lose in three tough sets the way she did last autumn (Venus) or this past winter (Doha, to Garbine Muguruza in three). She now loses much more lopsided matches. The overall portfolio of results is not too bad, and it does deserve to be mentioned that at age 24, Garcia is not immersed in the same “crisis of time” which applies to other WTA players such as Julia Goerges, Aga Radwanska, or Carla Suarez-Navarro, to offer a few examples. Nevertheless, Monday’s loss to Kerber should be seen as something more than merely “a bad day at the office.” This was a poor response to situational pressure. More than that, Garcia won’t be able to sneak up on the tour this coming autumn. If she can’t post a huge result at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, she will enter the autumn swing with a lot of points to defend. If she can’t defend them, her ranking will take a big hit, and her attempt to increase her odds of thriving at major tournaments will take a huge hit for the 2019 season. Garcia could then struggle to build back her ranking, and in two or three years, she could be stuck in the same basic position she inhabits now.
It is too early in Garcia’s career to say that a crisis has arrived — that is hyperbolic — but it is definitely not too early to be concerned.
Garcia has to bounce back from this loss in a meaningfully tangible way — sooner rather than later. Otherwise, a promising career — having raised its floor — will not be able to raise its ceiling.