Rafael Nadal is back among the living, tennis-wise, and I’d say his rivals better watch out. Those gray shorts the 26-year-old King of Clay dons are long enough to resemble the “piratas” he favored during his remarkable rise to a grass- as well as clay-worthy champion, and top-ranked player.
Earlier this week, I remarked on the degree to which Nadal was not missed since he quit the tour last July. I probably should have phrased it a little differently, and said that while he was certainly missed, the game didn’t really suffer or fail to satisfy while he was gone. That was proof of how strong and deep the men’s game presently is, and how fans have become so much more knowledgeable since the days when losing one of the top two or three players would have been catastrophic.
In fact, I got to thinking just what would happen if, after Nadal withdrew from the fray, an evil genie suddenly appeared and—poof! —Novak Djokovic was transformed into an MMA fighter, Roger Federer found himself a happy but anonymous trolley-car conductor in Basel, and Andy Murray morphed into a professional bagpiper, blowing out “Amazing Grace” at any event where someone was willing to fork over his hourly rate.
Furthermore, what if they were wiped right off our respective mental hard drives?
The answer is pretty obvious. Tomas Berdych might have five or six Grand Slams, but he probably would be engaged in a hot rivalry with a similarly accomplished Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. I imagine that Juan Martin del Potro might also be in that mix, but I’m not so sure about David Ferrer, and I doubt that Janko Tipsarevic would have enough game to challenge the very top players.
What we would have, probably, is a Big Three instead of this current real-world Big Four, and that leads to the most interesting question of all: Would the fan base of tennis dry up? (Let’s leave out the role the media might play in shaping opinion in all this.) Would we find a four-and-a-half hour Australian Open final between Berdych and Tsonga somehow lacking?
Personally, I doubt it. Tsonga, Berdych, and del Potro aren’t perceived as high-class also-rans because of any deficiency in their games; besides, all of them have put up resonant wins over the Big Four players at important events. Sure, you can say that Berdych runs off the rails mentally, or that Tsonga has a lack-of-intensity issue. And del Potro, lately, seems to hit walls composed of Swiss, Spanish, and Scottish bricks. But without the formidable problems they face against today’s top players, those shortcomings might not even be apparent. Perhaps they wouldn’t even exist.
Everyone is haunted by something, right? And right now I’m haunted by the sage words uttered by Tsonga after he lost (again) to Federer Down Under. Asked why the top four men arrive at the semifinals so predictably, he said: “In tennis, you know, you cannot lie. You cannot lie. If they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, it’s because they deserve it and because they are the best players at the moment. That’s it.”
Yes. But what exactly does “best” or “better” mean? It doesn’t always mean the player who won more points in a match—ask Roger Federer about that after his dazzling Australian Open semifinal loss to Marat Safin in 2005, and after one Rome final against his nemesis, Nadal. And in the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal, Andy Roddick won a whopping 152 points to Joachim Johansson’s 128—yet still lost the match.
“Best” also doesn’t mean more stylish, elegant, appealing, or attractive. Tennis is awash in gifted players who produce “beautiful” tennis, and scads of them have never come within sniffing distance of a Grand Slam title. Don’t try selling tickets against their names.
“Better” means more capable of winning. Period. And that capacity, as both the level of talent and the work each player puts into reaching his potential increases, winning is less and less about measurable or visible things. When a Djokovic loses a match because he missed a backhand passing shot, it’s more likely to be an isolated and in some ways meaningless detail rather than a comment on his backhand.
Given all that, you have to wonder why we hold winning in such high regard. (I plead guilty—nothing irritates me more than the complaint that the loser “deserved” to win, or that player A is a “better” player than player B because the former appears more naturally talented.) After all, winning is the one thing that can’t really be taught in a game that is so heavily rooted in learned bio-mechanics. Pro tennis players are idiot-savants; you’d have to be, if your life is built upon hitting 1,500 backhands and 1,500 forehands almost every day of your life, either in practice or match play. The soul of the game is something most of us usually dread—repetition.
Clearly, we are fascinated by those who win. If it were otherwise, players would be paid on a per-match basis, win or lose, for performing the game of tennis at the highest level. Now, if there were only eight or 10 players who could execute the shots in tennis with expertise and flair, I could see where losing half the cast would present promoters with serious marketing challenges. But I can think of numerous players whose games stack up with those of anyone when it comes to looking good, even “special.”
The curious thing is that “winning,” unlike a blazing Ernests Gulbis forhand or a Thomaz Bellucci backhand, is an opaque activity at best. There’s nothing eye-pleasing about it, nor can you compare one person’s ability to win with that of another, the way you can compare the backhands of Murray and Djokovic. If it’s a talent, it’s inherent. If it’s a character trait, it’s an amoral one. And that raises an intriguing question: Why do we hold winning in such high regard that we build an entire athletic industry around ability?
When we ask, what’s wrong with Tsonga, we really mean, “Why can’t he win the way Federer or Djokovic does?” The obvious answer, as Tsonga himself conceded, is because the other guy is “better.” But our measure for determining which guy is better, while ironclad (the score), is also less than definitive. That’s why people will argue until they fall off their barstools that Pete Sampras was better than Jimmy Connors, or that Nadal is better than Federer. Or that the losing player actually deserved to win.
The way tennis is set up, one guy will win and the other guy will not, in the end. That’s terrific when it comes to having some objective standard of measuring success. But that also means that if you removed X number of players from the limelight, a different set of players will take their place. Simple as that. New winners would take the place of old winners because everybody can play and somebody must win.
My point is pretty simple: We don’t flock to watch Federer or Nadal because they are so much better than Tsonga or Berdych. It’s just that there’s only so much room at the top, and we’re apparently designed or taught—or is it pre-disposed?—to value winning above all other things. Whether this is a metaphor for a larger condition in life is a discussion best left for another time and place.
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