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Aliaksandra Sasnovich and the search for traction

Matt Zemek

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports

Aliaksandra Sasnovich is not a unique player in the larger world of tennis. Dozens and dozens of players inhabit the situation in which she resides.

Sasnovich, in the quietude of Court 13 at Roland Garros, lost her first-round French Open match to Polona Hercog, 8-6 in the third set on Sunday. The result is unremarkable. It isn’t even a bad loss. Hercog is a 28-year-old veteran who has had a good season thus far, winning her first WTA Tour title in seven years (Lugano). Everyone is fighting for a better, more secure place on tour. Not everyone will get it.

Yet, it is worth noting that:

A) Sasnovich is not starting her career, and

B) She delivered results in 2018 which suggested she was beginning to gain what all professional athletes crave: traction.

These are the two points I will attempt to magnify in this piece.

Start with the reality of time.

Sasnovich is not a 20-year-old, someone for whom a loss to a veteran in an extended third set is a learning experience which can only be beneficial in the future. While this is not a bad loss, it also isn’t a helpful loss. Sasnovich is 25 years old. For players at or above the 25-year-old age marker, close losses are generally (not always, but generally) opportunities squandered.

It is valuable when a very young player endures a close loss. The vast expanse of the future enables present-tense disappointments to easily be viewed as stepping-stone moments. At 25, 26, 27 years of age, that same perspective doesn’t easily apply. Yes, a professional must always try to learn something of value from a difficult loss. The Big 3 in men’s tennis, and Serena Williams as well, remind us of the power and importance of always trying to improve. To that extent, there is something for Sasnovich to learn after the loss to Hercog.

Yet, one of the great reminders about “experience” as a positive attribute in sports is that when one accumulates a lot of experience at losing, the value of experience diminishes. Losing at 20 or 21? That is naturally a gateway process for an athlete, the start of a journey toward development, understanding, and eventually, transformation.

When players in their mid-20s lose the same matches they lost in their late teens or very early 20s, what does that indicate? Nothing good, that’s for sure. This doesn’t mean, of course, that losing tough matches in big tournaments in one’s mid-20s can’t lead to growth in the future. Stan Wawrinka (ATP) and Angelique Kerber (WTA) both show that one can win multiple major champions in one’s late 20s or early 30s after spending many years in the darkness. Yet, those are exceptional cases. It is true that other players have blossomed later in a career to varying degrees — think of Kevin Anderson (ATP) or the now-retired Li Na (WTA) — but an “autumn renaissance” still isn’t the typical or prevalent path to tennis success.

Most players generally need to get to a point where — in their mid-20s, the physical prime of an athlete (and of the human body in general) — they demonstrate command of situations and deliver consistently solid results. If they don’t deliver consistently solid results, they can still succeed by finding a way to flourish at the biggest tournaments, much as the Wawrinka template shows. (In other words, if you’re going to remain inconsistent, be inconsistent in a way which provides the biggest payoff in points, prize money, and prestige.)

Aliaksandra Sasnovich, at 25, is immersed in an urgent, important period of her career. She doesn’t have the time of a 20-year-old. That has to be noted, uncomfortable though it might be to do so.

The second point is that Sasnovich created some results in 2018 which pointed to a possible rise to a higher tier of WTA Tour competition.

Sasnovich drummed Petra Kvitova out of Wimbledon last year. If you can beat Petra at Wimbledon, you can play. Sasnovich then beat Daria Kasatkina (before her 2019 tailspin) at the U.S. Open, another indication of Sasnovich’s quality.

Even in 2019, Sasnovich has offered very brief glimpses of her potential: She beat Anett Kontaveit — a very dangerous ballstriker — at the Australian Open and in Madrid. The talent is there to become a factor on a very deep WTA Tour. Yet, Madrid is the only 2019 tournament since the Australian Open in which Sasnovich has won more than one main-draw match.

Traction. The word refers to the larger ability to gain firm footing, to be entrenched, to “stick” and not slip or drift away from a secure position. Athletes know they have reached a higher level of relevance and success when they “stick” on tour, when their floor becomes higher.

All-time greatness is a goal associated with raising one’s ceiling, with improving how well one can achieve at a supreme height. Before the ceiling can be raised, however, one must first raise the floor, improving one’s results on one’s worst days. Raising a floor points to the ability of an athlete to achieve a reasonably high level of results even when the quality of his or her tennis is mediocre. Can you win without being your best? When you CAN, that shows you have a higher floor than your opponents. That shows you have gained traction on tour.

Aliaksandra Sasnovich is searching for that. After this Roland Garros, that search continues. The clock is ticking. A career’s trajectory is at stake.

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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