Playing Ball: Losing Them All
“Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” It might be the most famous quote in tennis history. And unlike most famous quotes, Vitas Gerulaitis actually said it, in 1980, when he finally got a win over Jimmy Connors after 16 straight defeats. The only problem for Vitas was that it wasn’t true. Going by the statistics as they were kept at the time, Gerulaitis had lost all 20 of his matches to Bjorn Borg. (Today Vitas’s head-to-head record against Borg, as listed by the ATP, is 0-16; maybe he wasn’t kidding when he made the above statement, after all).
Gerulaitis could joke about his record against Connors, but the losing streak to Borg was no laughing matter, even for the happy go lucky Brooklyn kid. In 1980, he lost to the Swede four times, one of which was a straight-set trouncing in the Roland Garros final. By the following year, Gerulaitis had grown bitter about it. Losing to his good friend over and over began to sap his love for the sport and affect his results against everyone else.
Two decades later, Vince Spadea lost an ATP-record 21 straight matches. The experience was traumatic enough that he went out and created a new, sideways-capped persona for himself, “Ain’t afraid a ya Spadea”—anything to shed the loser tag. This past weekend, we saw how little belief a player of Maria Sharapova’s stature could have against a woman who had beaten her seven straight times. Fernando Verdasco was so spooked by his countryman Rafael Nadal that he couldn’t find a way to beat him on one of his worst days, in Cincinnati last year. All he could do after his umpteenth loss in a row to Rafa was spit on the court.
Losing streaks happen, is what I'm trying to say, and they can leave scars. As anyone who follows the sport knows, tennis currently has another one on its hands. This week in Toronto a second sideways-capped American, Donald Young, lost his 16th straight match, to Jeremy Chardy. As he has on four other occasions during his streak, which dates back to the Memphis event in February, Young won the first set before falling in three. But this was a particularly painful defeat for DY, because he went all the way to a tiebreaker in the second set before double-faulting and going down 7-4. His disappointment showed in the third, which he lost, listlessly, at love.
Young has been justly criticized for leaving the USTA fold this year to be coached by his mother, Illona. With the USTA, he had the best season of his seven-year career in 2011, cracking the Top 40 for the first time; now he’s down to No. 84, with a plunge into triple digits looming. I seem to be particularly bad luck for him. Along with the Chardy match, I watched Young squander a first set lead to Benoit Paire in Casablanca, even though the Frenchman appeared at times to be tanking. I also saw Young lose a gut-wrencher to Steve Darcis at Indian Wells in a third-set tiebreaker. After saving multiple match points in the breaker to get to 5-6, he lost on a nervous error.
Young has never done himself any favors with his attitude, but whatever the reasons for his decline, you have to feel for this ex-prodigy. You can see doubt etched on his face from the first moments of his matches—he’s waiting for something to go wrong, and when you do that, you usually don’t have to wait long. DY played pretty well for two sets against Chardy, a guy who would beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga the following day. Unfortunately, there’s a difference between playing well and winning in tennis. They’re overlapping skills, but not the same thing.
I can’t relate to a lot of things that the pros go through, but I can relate to losing. When I was 13 and had just moved up from the 12-and-unders to the 14s, I spent a summer tasting non-stop defeat. Later I would hear a phrase from another player that described my situation well: He said that he “had to learn how to lose in every way possible before he could learn how to win.”
That's how it worked for me at 13. At one tournament, I had two match points; I tried to do what you’re supposed to do, be aggressive, but rushed both shots and hit them out. I lost. Another day I couldn’t get a serve in the court and lost. I lost because my backhand went south, I lost because I didn’t have enough power and was still using a wooden racquet. I lost because I wasn’t in good shape and got tired. I lost because I was too friendly with my opponent, I lost because I was afraid to lose.
It didn't feel that way at the time, but there was a point to my losses that year. I was discovering what I needed to improve. By the next summer, I was winning tournaments. It’s possible that this will happen to DY as well, but it seems unlikely. He’s probably just hoping he’s still on tour as of next year.
Worse was the losing streak I endured in my senior year in college. There was no learning there, only defeat, from the start of the season until the end. I had played No. 2 on our team for three years and had a respectable record for most of that time. No. 1 was different; every school seemed to have at least one decent player, or at least one player whose position on the team gave him a feeling of confidence. I thought it would be a matter of time before I would learn the ropes at that level and raise my game. Instead, the opposite happened; I lost the belief that even my decent play would lead to a win. Even if I hit the ball well early, or broke serve in the first set, it didn't make me feel like it would lead to anything. The finish line always remained miles away. After a while, I stopped playing with tactics and just hit the ball. To use strategy, you first have to believe that it will get you somewhere.
Watching DY start well against Chardy, I could imagine him feeling like the finish line was far, far in the distance. He quickly surrendered the momentum of his first-set win by going down a break in the second. But while his forehand was loopier than it has been in the past, he did appear to be trying to find ways to win. Whatever his form, I’m guessing he’ll need some help—i.e., a bad day from an opponent—to end the streak. My own skid finally ended when I played an opponent I had never lost to before. I may have had little confidence in my game, but he still had no experience of beating me. Unfortunately for Young, it will be hard to find that type of opponent, at least at Masters events. But he will win again. Perhaps like Spadea, who had something of a late-career renaissance, he'll do whatever it takes to make everyone forget this streak.
From the outside, it might seem ridiculous or improbable that a pro could lose 21, or 16, matches in a row. To me, it’s a reminder of what makes tennis unique psychologically, something I’ve mentioned here many times: Unlike in golf, it’s not enough to play well and go about your business; you have to make someone else lose. You might always be able to hit an ace or a topspin forehand into the corner, but the confidence needed to win can vanish without a trace. What Young is going through isn’t unthinkable. It's very thinkable, in fact. It’s what's in the back of our heads, our ultimate nightmare: What if I can lose them all? Here’s hoping Donald Young wakes up from his nightmare soon. Maybe the spirit of Vitas Gerulaitis can lend a hand and keep him from losing 17 in a row.