Underachievers United

by: Steve Tignor | November 10, 2010

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Dn Shouldn’t slackers be making a comeback by now? It’s a recession, after all, and it’s a lot worse than the one in the early 90s that briefly made entitled sloth seem cool. Maybe 9/11 sounded a permanent death knell for self-righteous negativity, though the term and the identity were on the decline by the middle of the previous decade. In my memory, it was a combination of the fall of Nirvana and the rise of “MMM-Bop” that put an end to the slacker’s short, unhappy reign. But it did offer a few high points along the way. Consider Drugstore Cowboy and Matt Dillon’s triumphant words, “There’s nothing more life-affirming than getting your a-- kicked.” Or Pavement’s 1992 album, Slanted and Enchanted, and its ringing call to arms, “I was dressed for success, but success it never comes.” Or Daniel Clowes’ Eightball and Ghost World comics. The world would be poorer without them. Now look what we get, one more overachieving genius-nerd like Mark Zuckerberg to hate-envy.

Of course, there’s no room for slackers in sports, particularly in tennis. The game is designed to separate, as clearly as possible, winners from losers, to make it seem like those two categories really do exist and have some sort of significance (all part of the capitalist plot, of course). In a pro golf tournament, a player never has to say he “lost”; not true for the poor tennis player. On the ATP tour, failure to put in the “hard work”—or at least to make sure you say “hard work” 20 times weekly—is considered something close to immoral. I like to watch players who are into it, who improve, who find ways to win. Their effort makes me care about how they do. But I also find myself sparing a thought for the guys who don’t do those things 365 days a year. Every time I see a pro begin a practice session at a tournament, especially if it’s early in the morning, I cringe as they start hopping up and down to get the blood flowing. Doing that every day, just so you can hit the one-millionth forehand of your life? That’s work.

It’s probably unfair to call someone who has become a professional tennis player a slacker, but there are different levels of commitment to the cause. Underachiever is the more accurate term, because it takes in all the other reasons a player might not have lived up to this potential. The early days in Paris have been very good for talented underachiever spotting. We’ve had Ernests Gulbis’s “run” through two defaults—a totally slacker thing to do. We’ve had tragic man-child Richard Gasquet’s demolition at the hands of a former underachiever turned ridiculous paragon of success, Roger Federer (traitor). And today we had David Nalbandian.

What’s the effect of watching these guys? First, I like each of their games, even though it’s their natural talent that makes them frustrating and disappointing in the end; Gulbis at this worst is closer to depressing. In some ways, they're victims of their talent—the game came easily to them. In other ways, they’re victims of the unforgiving hierarchy imposed by tennis, in its tournaments and its ranking system. There can be only one winner, and one No. 1. With everyone else, however brilliant they are at 99 percent of the game, it will be the flaws that we remember and focus on.

Nalbandian may be the most interesting case, because he’s the most accomplished of the three, and because he’s the Guy Who Didn’t Become Roger Federer. He beat Federer as a junior and when they started on tour. If his talent and athleticism doesn’t quite rise to Federer’s level, it rises high enough that it could have won him a Grand Slam or two. But it hasn’t. (I was dressed for success . . . ) There are a number of reasons that have come together to keep him from them. There’s his much-remarked-upon spare tire—though I have seen Nalbandian putting in the “hard work” at various tournaments—and there was his fifth-set breakdown against Marcos Baghdatis in the Aussie Open semis in 2006. There’s his lack of a big match mentality and lack of interest in doing absolutely everything he can to win. Like another vintage slacker, Marat Safin, Nalbandian is a master in Davis Cup, where he’s playing for someone other than himself. Just as important, I think, is that as smooth as his game is most of the time—there’s never been a two-handed backhand like Nalbandian’s—there’s a slight tendency to sloppiness in it as well. He’s at his best when he’s set up and leaning forward, not as good when he’s pushed or rushed. That’s not true for Federer or Nadal, or even Murray and Djokovic.

I watched the first two sets of Nalbandian and Murray in Bercy on Wednesday. I don’t have any real fan connection with Nalbandian. His personality is a step too remote for me to quite comprehend; from that perspective, I like Murray more. But when the Argentine has it going, the way he did in the first set, I’ve never seen anyone make tennis look simpler or easier—move opponent off to one side, coast forward, knock off volley winner, repeat. There are no extraneous movements, no Federer-like flourishes, but at the same time his style isn’t minimalist or practical. Then Nalbandian got tight, and a little sloppy, late in the second and couldn’t close it. It’s frustrating—frustratingly human. We all want to be Federer, but really we're Nalbandian. We’re prey to fear, sloth, sloppiness. It’s just that tennis, with its pure individualistic hierarchy, leaves no room for any of those things. But there may be more to be learned, more to relate to, in the flaws, though that would require being a fan who didn't care whether his favorite player won or not. That would require believing the words of the drugstore cowboy, that there's honor in taking a beating. That would require saying, as a true slacker would say about Nalbandian: How can you blame the guy? If you can make the game look so easy, why would you want to make it hard?

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