Gilles Climbs the Hill (YC)

Monday, October 05, 2009 /by

91394470 Mornin'. I hope yall had a good weekend; it's peak of foliage season here in the Northeast (at least outside the  carbon bubble over New York City, which is about a month behind the elevated areas upstate); out on the leaf-peeping circuit, Volvos bearing loads of corn stalks on their roof racks and pumpkins in the trunk are rear-ending each other left and right along the colorful highways. And it' s apple cider season, a true reason to celebrate.

On to the business at hand: As our headline writer for Tennis.com (I think Easy Ed McGrogan was on the shift, and he's out of the office today - probably still sick over the performance of his beloved Bills/Jills this weekend) so eloquently put it: Better late than never. . . A triple titlist last year, Simon was on fire at about this time last year, and it appears that he may be re-igniting the flame. If he has a good fall, he'll have every reason to look back on the meat of the 2009 year as the heart of his  "sophomore slump." 

There may be no better demonstration of the liquid, 24/7/30/12 nature of the tennis calendar than the problem people have identifying things like a player's "rookie year," which, strictly speaking, would have to precede any sophomore slump. Although "turned-pro" dates can be useful career-starting points for those inclined to keep track, they're inadequate in an era when  cradle-to-grave professionalism has become the norm, and there's no Rubicon separating the amateur-pro divide. That river ran dry in tennis quite some time ago, partly because of the increasing European and South American influence.

Broadly speaking, Bjorn Borg was the first great cradle-to-grave tennis superstar to emerge in the Open era, and that opened the floodgates. Here in the USA, the line in the sand between amateur and pro is still considered useful, because the collegiate game is still alive and kicking.  I'm a fan of college tennis and the very idea of a collegiate game, and so is the US Davis Cup captain and head of USTA player development, Patrick McEnroe. Over breakfast the other day, he made some intriguing ranking comparisons to argue that some kids playing Future and Challenger events could be getting equally good competition, as well as the ancillary benefits that accrue from playing collegiate tennis (they can be significant, especially in the fitness and practice-time department), as well as simply feeling less intense pressure, if they chose college over the pro-circuit minors.

But back to Gilles. He played three of the four majors in 2005 (I assume his ticket into Roland Garros in '04 was a matter of wild-card largesse for native players), so I'd say that's about close as you can come to a start-date for his pro career; thereby, he was a "somphomore" in 2006 (and I know such distinctions will only baffle our many non-US readers). That's two full years before his the time he really reached maturity and was able to trot his best tennis on the greatest number of occasions. It's almost better to take a player's break-out year as the start of his career, but the internal logic of that collapses if a player can never match his or her break-out year. Any player who can't improve on the best year of his early career (say, up to the age of 23 for the men, 21 for the women) is either failing to meet his potential or has been the victim of circumstances, like a sudden improvement in the field.

In 2008, Simon jumped from a year-end ranking of no. 27 all the way to no. 7. This year, he slumped; it often happens when players are unaccustomed to the thin-air found at the higher altitude of the rankings. Just how a player handles the sudden pressures and demands - physical, mental and emotional - of elevated status is a critical issue. In that sense, the fall season can be a godsend, because it opens a great window for rehabilitation. And the quality of the draw is a surprisingly minor issue for pros in that position. All other things (like ranking points or prize money) aside, a player will always choose winning matches over playing well and losing, even though losses against higher-ranked opponents hurt less.

Winning matches gives you confidence, and that's the one element of a good game that erodes quickly during a slump.

This is a Your Call thread - feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

-- Pete

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