They Said What? Feb. 6

Wednesday, February 06, 2013 /by

The quotes I chose to use in this edition of They Said What? have something in common: Each of them is a very familiar refrain, almost to the point of being what we ordinarily think of as a “throwaway” quote. But upon closer examination, each of them also strikes a chord and points to a central truth so obvious that in our obsession with the new or different that we easily overlook or forget it. So let’s start:

“I started so early. My whole family was into tennis—my parents and my sister, too. I basically started playing tennis when I started walking. From that point it was always my dream to become a professional tennis player. My idol was Steffi Graf when I was growing up—she was from Germany, I liked the way she played, and she was so successful. I had the same racquet, the same clothes, the same everything as her. I haven’t met her yet, but hopefully in the future I will get to meet her!”—Mona Barthel, WTA No. 28 and recent winner of the Open GDF SUEZ.

Is there a more basic, representative, or—dare I say it?—clichéd description of how this or that little girl or boy became a tennis champion? I like this quote partly because there is absolutely nothing surprising, or what we might describe as “original,” in it. But hackneyed as it sounds, this is how so many of the rank-and-file players in the game, including highly successful ones, are spawned.

We’ve seen plenty of player development schemes, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. And there are some fairly complicated theories of why nations either produce—or fail at producing—a wave of strong, competent players. But for large numbers of pros, the first step toward their career began at home, with a desire to emulate, please, or merely spend time with. . . parents and siblings.

In some cases, though, the equation is flipped upside-down. Just as Barthel and players like Ivan Lendl (who as a toddler was often tied to the netpost on the court where his mother went to play tennis), Chris Evert (whose father was a teaching pro), and—yes—Graf craved the approval of and engagement with their parents, others seem to have developed their early interest and start in tennis because of a parent’s interest in spending time with them.

Sam Sampras, Richard Williams, Mike Agassi, and numerous others used tennis as a way to connect with their kids. You can be all kinds of cynical about this, and ascribe the worst motives to the much reviled “tennis parent.” But it almost always begins with a benign and admirable desire to spend time together, along with a desire to nurture what talent might be on display. Where it goes from there really depends on a variety of factors, including chemistry and the natures and desires of all the involved parties.

I’ll never forget the late Karolj Seles, father of Monica, complaining to me about how he had a tiger by the tail in his little girl, whose determination and desire were so strong that he had no choice but to hang on and follow her on that spectacular upward arc.

You want to see more tennis champions? Create conditions where families have ample time to bond over and through tennis. These days, that’s easier said than done, at least in the vast middle class, where people are so preoccupied with work.

*****

“Even if somebody beats this record in the future I will have this experience which I can share with anybody. These kind of experiences are what this competition is all about. That’s why it keeps me coming back. You play the tennis for the memories, and once you’ve achieved something, the memories are something which nobody can steal from you.”—Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, after he led his nation to a 3-2 win over Switzerland in the first round of Davis Cup World Group play.

Berdych was referring to that amazing seven-hour and one-minute doubles match that turned the tide in favor of the defending champs. Berdych and Lukas Rosol defeated Marco Chiudinelli and Stanislas Wawrinka in a five-set marathon that ended in a 24-22 final set.

The noteworthy thing about Berdych’s familiar praise for the Davis Cup only becomes apparent if you consider how different his attitude might have been had this been a regular ATP or Grand Slam tournament.

Consider this: Wawrinka and Berdych both played singles on Friday. They returned with barely 24 hours rest to play a seven hour-plus doubles match—after which they had to face each other in the critical fourth rubber. By that point, the Czechs were in a position to clinch, while the Swiss were struggling to stay alive and push the tie to a decisive rubber.

Berdych shut down the show, though, with a game four-set win over Wawrinka. I have to believe that having been on the winning team in that doubles epic (the second longest pro tennis match ever, behind the legendary Wimbledon battle between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut) helped replenish the spring in Berdych’s legs, while Wawrinka must have been at least slightly depressed about letting it get away.

Had this been anything but a Davis Cup tie, I can see either or both men complaining about fatigue, the format, or the lack of a final-set tiebreaker. But neither had anything negative to say about the experience. Who says that Davis Cup doesn’t occupy a special place in the hearts of almost all the players?

*****

“In a final it’s always two players who are playing well, so it’s never going to be easy. It was such a close match and I had chances to win, but I just didn’t take them. I’ll learn a lot though.”—Sabine Lisicki, after she lost to Maria Kirilenko in the Pattaya City final.

Last year, Kirilenko lost a three-hour, 14-minute final at this tournament to Daniela Hantuchova. This year, she had to battle for two hours and 37 minutes to subdue the unpredictable but ever dangerous Lisicki.

The match had wild swings. Lisicki had three points to go up 7-5, 2-0, only to squander those chances and then watch helplessly as Kirilenko ran off 11 of the next 13 games to take the second set—and assume a formidable, 5-2, 40-15, double-match point lead in the final set.

But Lisicki roared back, winning four straight games to take the lead, 6-5—with serve. Kirilenko promptly won 11 of the next 12 points, including a service break, and dominated the third-set tiebreaker to prevail, 5-7, 6-1, 7-6 (1).

Lisicki’s quote, particularly the bit about how she’ll “learn a lot” from the loss, was standard, philosophical-loser fare. But you have to wonder, just what can she “learn” from this blown opportunity? Not to let big leads slip away? (Duh!) Not to waste match points? (Brilliant, Dr. Watson!) To tighten up the game when it comes down to the wire in the third set?

Frankly, I can’t imagine that Lisicki will learn a danged thing from this loss. It’s not the first close match she’s lost, nor will it be her last. Her reaction reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, delivered by Billie Jean King a long time ago.

Commenting on a comparably close loss by a top player some years ago, Billie Jean took exception to the idea that the loser would “learn” a great deal from the match. She blithely said, “I don’t think you learn anything from losing. I never did. I only learned from winning, which is one of the reasons winning is so much better than losing.”

Think about that one for a minute. See you next time!

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