Commentators often like to invoke the notion of a “bad loss,” differentiating it from an “acceptable loss” or a “good loss.” I’m not going to dive into a discussion of those distinctions, but I will say that Jelena Ostapenko’s first-round exit from Roland Garros — 7-5, 6-3, at the hands of Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine — will certainly inspire debate about that point.
To me, this is not a time when the dimensions of a “bad loss” are particularly relevant or important. What matters is that Ostapenko learns from her experience. What happened on Sunday inside Court Philippe Chatrier is simultaneously rare in a larger historical sense and appreciably common in recent tennis history. Yes, an event can be rare and common at the same time. Complexity, not simplicity, governs this particular upset on day one of the 2018 French Open.
The Williams sisters, Steffi Graf, and the other great champions of women’s tennis very rarely lose (or lost) in round one of a major. Venus Williams did lose in round one on Sunday as well, but that’s only the 10th time in 78 majors she has lost in the first round. Moreover, Venus lost in the first round in only three of her first 54 majors. Only illness and older age have caused most of her early exits to occur. In her prime, such an event almost never happened.
It is also true that defending champions at specific majors don’t normally bomb out in round one. Ostapenko’s loss is the first opening-round loss for a reigning French Open champion since Anastasia Myskina in 2005. More precisely, it’s the ONLY loss for a defending women’s singles champion in Paris. Angelique Kerber’s round-one loss to Naomi Osaka at last year’s U.S. Open marked a rare occasion in which the defending champion in New York left the Big Apple after her first match. In 2003, neither of the 2002 champions got past the first round, but Pete Sampras (retired) and Serena Williams (injury) didn’t lose a first-round match. They never entered the tournament. Losing in the first round of a major as defending champion is not common.
However, for all the ways in which the Ostapenko loss is not a normal event, it also IS an entirely natural tennis occurrence with multiple examples in recent years. Kerber was one such example at the 2017 U.S. Open. Ostapenko’s loss marks the fourth consecutive time in which the defending champion at a major has not reached the second round, though only the second time due to losing a round-one match.
There are other ways in which one can see this event as part of a pattern. For instance, the French Open has now featured round-one losses by a previous year’s major champion in consecutive editions. Kerber didn’t win the 2016 French Open, but she did win majors in 2016, and she lost in round one last year. Ostapenko’s loss means that a 2017 major champion lost again in round one in Paris this year.
Here, though, is a bigger and more important pattern to take note of in the wake of Ostapenko’s loss: Young major champions commonly go through adjustment periods after breaking through.
Martina Hingis wasn’t defending a Wimbledon title in 1999, but her first-round loss to Jelena Dokic was a seismic upset at the time. Hingis hadn’t yet turned 19. Svetlana Kuznetsova, as the 20-year-old defending champion at the 2005 U.S. Open, lost in the first round. The Williamses won so many majors, Serena in particular, that the reality of major champions losing in first rounds didn’t occur with great frequency, but when non-Williams, non-Henin, non-Sharapova champions have worn a heavy crown, they have felt its weight.
This dynamic has existed in men’s tennis as well. Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open and then took his lumps for a few years before putting all the pieces together on a more regular basis at Wimbledon and in New York. Andre Agassi’s 1992 Wimbledon title did not immediately open the floodgates for more championships; he went through valleys before finding his peak again. Yet, more than those two icons, the ATP player who most fully evokes a sense of volatility which is similar to Ostapenko is the man whose feat Ostapenko replicated last year in Paris.
When Ostapenko won the 2017 French Open, she won her first tour event at a major. The last person to do that was Gustavo Kuerten, also at the French Open… on the day Ostapenko was born in June of 1997. How fitting it is that these two players should be linked in tennis history, because Ostapenko’s loss in 2018 points to an under-discussed aspect of Guga’s career.
When I researched French Open men’s semifinalists from 1992-2004 for a piece I published at Tennis With An Accent just before this French Open began, I was startled to see that Kuerten made the French Open semifinals only three times. Does that fact surprise you? Maybe not, but for most people, I reckon it probably would cause a few eyebrows to shoot up.
Kuerten pulled off the very rare feat of winning a major tournament three times yet never making the semifinals beyond those three occasions. That’s hard to do, both in terms of the enormity of winning three majors and the limited nature of his longevity at a tournament he knew how to win. Typically, a player wins multiple times at a specific major tournament because he or she regularly makes the latter rounds; some years s/he falls short, but other years she breaks through.
Boris Becker at Wimbledon; Ivan Lendl at the French; Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open; Federer and Djokovic at the Australian Open — these men have lost quarterfinals, semifinals and finals on a number of occasions, but remained persistent and waited for moments when the trophies rolled into their hands. Winning six, eight, 12, or 20 major titles isn’t “normal,” but what remains natural is the process of constantly being in the hunt and winning championships because of that consistency over a longer period of time. Guga Kuerten escaped that pattern, but while that “escape” is abnormal in some ways, it isn’t all that shocking in others, chiefly how the Brazilian responded to his first Roland Garros title in 1997, the title which wasn’t replicated by anyone else in tennis until Ostapenko, 20 years later.
In the 1998 French Open, a 21-year-old Kuerten lost in the second round. This man, whose game so organically snapped into place on clay and whose comfort level should have been so pronounced, couldn’t find form or function when he wore the target on his back. Instructively, though, Kuerten went through that valley at Roland Garros and — in 2000 and 2001 — managed to stack back-to-back titles on top of each other. As a young major champion in 1998, Kuerten faltered, but in time, he used that experience and turned it into a positive moment.
Is this a bad loss for Ostapenko, a person who is walking in Kuerten’s path at the moment? I don’t think it is, but as said at the start of this piece, I don’t think that’s the important point of focus here. What matters is that Ostapenko study tennis history, come to terms with the reality of life on tour, accept that hardships will be part of the journey… and learn lessons which might bear fruit in two or three years.
She has, after all, not even turned 21.
Even major champions have the right — and deserve the space — in which to learn lessons about growing up on tour. The Education Of A Young Tennis Player can apply to those who have lifted major trophies.
Image taken from Jimmie 48 Photography
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…)