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On Courage and tennis

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The 2020 U.S. Open men’s final has been universally decried as an abomination of the sport, a very sad match played at one of the game’s finest venues. Everybody is calling both players involved in the match anything short of a disgrace and comments about the quality of play range from four letter words to abysmal, with nothing being said about the match absolving it from damnation.
Looking at the numbers, the verdict seems a bit too extreme. It was the first U.S. Open final in which one player had come back from a two sets deficit, and it was decided in a fifth set tiebreaker, something that should grant it at a minimum some degree of dramatic value. Both players combined for 95 winners, so some quality was seen (offset, of course, by 120 Unforced Errors). So, to claim that this match was tennis infamy at its worst is quite something. What went on on Sunday for this match to be so reviled?
Both Thiem and Zverev are no strangers to some big occasions, and they have delivered quality tennis for a reasonable span of time by now. It was Thiem’s fourth Slam Final, so he was the more seasoned player in situations like this, and Zverev has beaten the Big Three at other events, so it is not as if he does not have the game to match the greats. What happened this Sunday was that both players were affected by one simple effect: tennis is a game and a sport tailor made to reduce its participants to psychological mush. What happened on Sunday was a glimpse at the core of what this activity is all about.
One has to remember how psychologically brutal tennis can be. It is designed to make you doubt yourself at every moment, because tennis offers one continuous test that no other sport has: you are playing for every point, game and set, and if you lose any, it simply goes to your opponent. This is not as in other sports, where, for example, if you miss a three pointer, the other team gains nothing. If you miss one shot, it is not the other team’s gain. In tennis, every point goes one way or another, so no point is worthless. They all have to be fought for. And tennis has another interesting feature: you can see the finish line, but that same finish line can keep moving farther away into some metaphysical future that becomes difficult to grasp. This is not a basketball team up by 15 with 2 minutes on the clock, or a football team up by two touchdowns with five minutes left to play. In those cases, you know that if you simply match your opponent, victory is yours. You can trade scores and reach that finish line first, simply because a clock will declare you the winner.
At the U.S. Open, we saw how that concept is completely irrelevant in tennis. Kristina Mladenovic got a taste of the cruelty of tennis when she was just points away from victory, only to lose in a distant third set she could not envision when she was up 6-1, 5-1. In tennis, what you have done up to any moment means nothing regarding what you need to do next. And everybody knows that before going into a match, but one thing is knowing, another is facing that reality. Tennis is a treacherous activity because the thought of winning triggers emotional responses that may hinder the same goal you are trying to reach. And that was the underlying element of this final that made it so difficult. Because the difference, for example, for Thiem regarding this final versus the Australian Open final he so bravely played in January was that this final was winnable. He went out onto Rod Laver arena in January knowing he was the clear underdog, and in a sense, had nothing to lose. At the U.S. Open, both Thiem and Zverev went out knowing that they could win as opposed to the reality of the last years in which every player goes out to play against Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic knowing that the general consensus states they will lose.
At the small elbow where the players go on court at Arthur Ashe stadium, the USTA has placed a plaque with Billie Jean King’s immortal words: “Pressure is a privilege”. Indeed, few people are more qualified than BJK to talk about pressure, but the epitaph (because that is what it really is) says nothing about how to deal with that pressure. And it may be a privilege, but pressure is pressure and its physical component states that it is there to crush: a ton of marshmallows will crush you in the same exact way as a ton of lead. So, perhaps it was a privilege to go out into Arthur Ashe stadium on that Sunday, but that privilege and its fellow pressure must have been immense. Simply imagine the difference of going out facing Novak Djokovic, the expected champion, and against whom either player would have been not favored at all. On this occasion, the match was truly there to be won. And maybe that other famous tournament also has a plaque above the entrance to its Centre Court telling you to treat victory and defeat in the same way, but poetry sometimes uses its elegance as a cloak for when it is not telling the truth and the reality is that in any sport, and almost in all aspects of life, victory and defeat are hardly the same and it is them that will treat you differently.
Some people have stated that this final was a vision of the future of tennis, and that such future looks less than palatable. That is false. Examples of what this final was telling abound at every tournament, and Mladenovic’s debacle was not a lone event. There were enough matches in which players came back from two sets down, and the women’s semis and finals gave us glimpses of the same underlying truth. The question of whether at one time during her semi-final loss, Serena Williams, a woman not known for mental frailty, saw the number “24” flash through her mind and whether that affected her is simply academic. It must have happened. And then she lost. The super-natural players that we have witnessed during the last decades have shown how mentally tough they are, but one thing is mental strength, another is invincibility. And no one is there yet.
The people that called this final worthless are failing to see that in reality, this final reminded us of what this sport really is about. What this sport does to its participants. Even in boxing, a sport of much more physical brutality than tennis, every three minutes the participants go to their corner for advice and solace, and they know, with certainty, that there is a maximum of 36 minutes of confrontation to be had. One has to wonder how cavernous and vacuous Arthur Ashe felt on Sunday, how lonely both players felt in that empty space, and how the pressure kept building up little by little, for both, as that finish line got closer and then farther away, as the opportunities materialized and vanished, as every error was magnified by memory (how could I miss that?) and every magnificent winner was reduced to irrelevance once it was over.
What we witnessed on Sunday was the exact nature of the sport. What we saw was that even the most gifted practitioners of this game will be crushed by pressure and expectations of defeat or victory, reduced to being unable to hit the same exact shot they have hit myriad times in their careers because that same exact shot is not the same when you have to hit it in a fifth set tie-break of a Grand Slam.
What we saw on Sunday was not the future of what tennis will look like. What we saw, what we were told, is how monumentally cruel, difficult and demanding this sport is. And it is a good thing we were reminded.

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