Svetlana Kuznetsova and Richard Gasquet didn’t win the Cincinnati tour stop at the Western & Southern Open this past week. Yet, they won what could be called “personal championships.”
They also delighted a lot of tennis fans along the way.
It is one of the more poignant aspects of any sport: no, not merely the older athlete’s struggle to remain relevant in a cutthroat world — though that definitely applies to Kuznetsova and Gasquet — but the battle of the artistic athlete against failure.
Not every sports fan has the same set of tastes and preferences, but there is a certain romanticism attached to a large portion of sports fans who love “the beautiful game,” regardless of sport.
There is a beautiful version of soccer (or “international football,” for those who REALLY care whether Americans such as myself use the term “soccer”). There is also a “park the bus” form of defense-first soccer built on goal prevention and waiting for a chance to counterattack.
There is a beautiful version of American football — throw the ball all the time, spread the field, go deep — and then there is the grim, bonecrushing version of football which insists on defense, turnovers, field position, and the kicking game.
There is a beautiful version of basketball — endless ball movement, constant fast breaks, and brilliant 3-point shooting — and a businesslike version of basketball based on relentless halfcourt defense, slowing the tempo, and setting bruising screens to create dominance in the 10 feet nearest the basket.
The romantic view of sports is that the beautiful game wins out. The businesslike view of sports is that the less sexy focus on the gritty, sweaty, muscular tasks of a sport matter more than dazzling talent.
Both sides have a point to make. Both sides contain a measure of truth. The larger reality is that contests between “pretty sports” and “necessary sports” — the beautiful game versus the businesslike game — are often seen as clashes of civilizations in the sports world. They are the “new-age modernist secularism versus old-world theocracy” of sports.
When the businesslike version of an athlete or team triumphs over the beautiful version, it is seen as a triumph of realism and hard work over natural grace and skill. That is often an oversimplification, of course — it takes a lot of skill to win in any sport, and it takes hard work to play a game with beauty and grace.
Yet, I think everyone can readily grasp what is being said here. In an imperfect world, beauty is fragile and ambitious. Some of us achieve all or most of our ambitions, but many of us struggle and have to accept life’s profound limitations.
Beauty, grace, elegance — they don’t always win. More precisely, they don’t normally win.
This, I think, is why the British Royal Family draws such enormous worldwide interest and media coverage. People are captivated by the fairy-tale wedding or the soap-operatic intrigues behind the scenes.
People love to see that dreams can come true for someone such as Meghan Markle. They also relate to the royals — people of immense power, wealth and privilege — being subjected to the same human realities as everyone else.
In tennis, people love seeing the “beautiful athletes” struggle against the burden of their beauty.
They love seeing players such as Svetlana Kuznetsova and Richard Gasquet struggle to bring out their best, knowing that when they DO play their best, the tennis is so gorgeous and attractive. Fans put up with these players because the payoff is so rich when it is delivered, and because the mere attempt to elevate beauty in the world is itself an inspiring process.
Kuznetsova has played professionally since 2000, Gasquet since 2002. One doesn’t have to watch either player for very long to realize how gifted they are at shaping a tennis ball and hitting a wide assortment of shots.
Plenty of tennis players inspire fans when they succeed. These players encompass every playing style. Yet, the tennis fan’s heart normally aches — in defeat — and soars (in victory) MORE for players such as Kuznetsova and Gasquet than for other more workmanlike players. (Think of Gilles Simon or Elina Svitolina.)
Kuznetsova, who is 34, and Gasquet, 33, didn’t just spend the past week in Ohio battling back from injuries and disruptions. They didn’t just recapture quality tennis at an advanced stage of their careers. They showed that the beautiful game which resides within them can still be displayed in public, in a tournament of significance.
Svetlana Kuznetsova and Richard Gasquet showed they can rise above the forces which have pushed against them for a long time. They showed that their beautiful tennis can still live — not just in theory, but in reality.
They didn’t win Cincinnati, but they won personal championships… and in that rediscovery of meaning, they gave a lot of joy to the millions who want them to succeed.