In January, anyone who follows tennis lives in a new world. The world is shaped by the previous season, but the changing of a year and the emergence from an offseason do reset the outlook for every athlete.
Offseasons carry a very useful purpose in all sports: They give athletes (and in team sports, the organizations at large, particularly the coaching staffs) a chance to evaluate at great length what they need to do to get better.
In January, everyone has a plan for how to get better. Once the whirl of competition gets rolling, these plans might evolve. They might get destroyed. They might be refuted in certain ways and affirmed in others.
The larger point is that in the offseason, athletes have the best — and most expansive — situation in which to be self-critical and clearheaded about what they want to do next. They get a chance to study. They get a chance to go off the grid away from media scrutiny. They get a chance to review the previous season. It is a time when new ideas are most commonly created.
At the Australian Open, we get our first clear sense of what tennis players intended to do with their offseasons. We learn — at least to a small degree — what players spent the offseason trying to achieve in the development of their games.
Tune-up events are just that: tune-up events. They can be times for experimentation and tinkering. The Australian Open is the first “showtime” moment of the tennis year, when we essentially say to players of varying skill levels, “Okay, here is your moment. Whatcha got?”
So, in this early part of January, what question best expresses the complexities of the tennis landscape and the sense of excitement we bring to each new year? For me, it is this: “Does the journey matter more than the destination in the weeks just before the Australian Open?”
I ask that question because this past week, WTA Tour competition created a number of matches whose significance is hard to pin down.
Naomi Osaka defeated Sofia Kenin in three sets. Eugenie Bouchard defeated Caroline Garcia. Kiki Bertens won a close three-setter against Anett Kontaveit. These aren’t the ONLY examples of newsworthy matches whose value is hard to assess, but they certainly rate as prominent examples of such matches.
When asking the “Journey or destination?” question, here is what I am getting at:
Does it matter more that Osaka won — and that Kenin lost — or that the two players played, giving each of them an awareness of how their games stack up against each other?
Does it matter more than Bouchard and Garcia — two talented players trying to transform their careers — met at the start of a season, or that Bouchard prevailed while Garcia lacked answers?
Does it matter more than Bertens found solutions — and that Kontaveit yet again allowed a winnable match to slip away — or that the two players both received a vigorous early-season test?
There are “journey-based” answers to these questions — it is good that they played — and there are destination-based answers as well, based on the importance of winning and the frustration of losing.
Do we KNOW whether the journey-based or destination-based answers matter more? Ah, yes. That’s the trick of it, oui? Oui.
Let’s see after the Australian Open how much these matches meant. Let’s see HOW these matches influenced the Australian Open (if at all).
This is a familiar early-January exercise in tennis evaluation. Have fun!