In golf, players get eliminated midway through a tournament in a ruthless, Darwinist … and immensely satisfying … manner.
They missed the cut.
They played two days, they gave it a go, it didn’t work out. There’s a clean quality to that particular solo-athlete sport within the context of tournament play. Golfers get injured, sure, but an individual tournament doesn’t often involve a significant contender getting injured late in the third round or midway through Sunday’s final round.
Tennis is different.
The great lure of tennis relative to golf is its episodic quality. The content of a specific bracket can put two personalities — or two contrasting styles, or two equally-matched players — across from each other on the same court. A major tennis tournament offers as many as 127 individual episodes in which an underdog can get lucky; or a journeyman can make a career-defining moment; or an old veteran can fend off a 19-year-old; or two 26-year-old worker bees can see which one will have the better late-stage career; or any of a number of other possibilities. The quality of tennis might not always be great, but if the match is close, the drama of man-versus-man or woman-versus-woman — one human striver against another — becomes intensely compelling.
Golf loses its heft and its scope of significance on the second or third page of a leaderboard. It’s true that finishing in the top 10 or 20 becomes very important for being on the Ryder Cup team or earning various other rewards, but solely within the course of a tournament’s capacity to retain the attention of the beholder, no one really cares who finishes 16th or 32nd.
Tennis — as we have been able to see at this year’s U.S. Open — is different, and in a delightful way.
It matters when Karolina Pliskova and Ana Konjuh reach their first-ever major quarterfinals. One won’t reach the semifinals, but it really mattered that the loser of Wednesday’s quarterfinal finished in eighth place. It will always be remembered as a triumph. Anastasija Sevastova reached her first major quarterfinal. Her stay in New York was an unquestioned success.
Kyle Edmund reached his first-ever round of 16 at a major. He didn’t win this tournament… but he won in a larger sense. So did Ilya Marchenko. Paolo Lorenzi reached his first major round of 32. That’s a legitimate victory, broadly viewed, in light of all his previous career struggles.
Though 128 people contest a major tennis tournament, the stage-by-stage, one-on-one nature of competition magnifies each achievement. It’s so much more of a human buffet of emotions, scenes, and theatrical situations than golf is.
The problem? We’re seeing it at this Open.
Injuries — in what is a far more punishing sport than golf — are a regular part of life on the tennis tours. Given that tennis is much more physically taxing compared to 1980 — before the advent of advanced racquet and string technology, plus sports medicine and sports nutrition — it is so much harder to carry a body through a full season, especially if one wins a lot and therefore plays large quantities of matches.
The U.S. Open is not only the last major of the year; it marks the end of a long march through a hot summer played on hardcourts. As recently as 1977, none of the four majors were played on hardcourts. Now, two of the four are, making hardcourt the majority surface at the biggest tournaments. Indoor events are not played on carpet, as was usually the case in the early 1980s, but on hardcourts. The toll the surface takes on knees and joints (ask Rafael Nadal) is considerable. Playing long stretches of hardcourt tennis is not easy on the body to begin with; in light of the added strain of modern tennis compared to 35 years ago, it’s that much more unforgiving.
We shouldn’t be surprised at all the withdrawals and retirements at the U.S. Open. It’s a downer if only because we’d like to see any athlete win solely because he or she played better tennis under circumstances in which his or her opponent was entirely unimpaired. However, we don’t always get that.
We shouldn’t get angry at the beneficiary of injury luck. Novak Djokovic can’t do one thing about the very unusual series of events which has carried him to the semifinals to face Gael Monfils. Djokovic demonstrated superiority against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Tuesday’s quarterfinal before his French opponent retired. It’s not as though Tsonga was likely to win, anyway.
The more unfortunate development from Tuesday in New York was that Gael Monfils — for just the second time in his career and the first time in eight long years — made a major semifinal… without much fanfare.
This should have been cause for an effusive celebration. Monfils is a very popular and loved player — exasperating, but warmly received by most — because of his ability to entertain with a joie de vivre matched by few of his professional peers. So many fans have been pulling for him to maximize his potential and win a first major title. He’s two wins away, and Friday, he’ll get a chance to make his first major final.
However, the attritional nature of tennis got in the way, as it has for many at this U.S. Open.
Because Lucas Pouille — his quarterfinal opponent — was dead-legged after playing three straight five-setters, Monfils encountered no robust resistance after the first six games of the match. Since Sunday afternoon, men’s matches have very rarely delivered anything resembling high-level quality and drama between two players who both performed well at the same time. Bodies are wearing down; the season has taken its toll; and with Milos Raonic, Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych, and other players out of this event due to injury, it’s hard to feel satisfied with current happenings as an observer and connoisseur of tennis. Moreover, in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, two notoriously injury-prone players — Juan Martin del Potro and Kei Nishikori — will add to the sense that a disappointing day is just a heartbeat away.
Monfils is winning, but tennis seems to be losing at this tournament.
In Tuesday’s women’s quarterfinals, the landscape was not any more pleasant.
Angelique Kerber and Roberta Vinci played the day’s most interesting set of singles, but it was interesting largely because it was a struggle with nasty conditions at Ashe Stadium, the product of a brutal sun-and-shadow effect which makes it hard for players to pick up the ball coming out of the shade. Other than that set, the other three stanzas were wipeouts in favor of Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki. Sevastova — Woz’s opponent — suffered an injury which marred the night’s WTA quarterfinal. Wozniacki reached a major semifinal as the No. 74 player in the world. As is the case with Monfils reaching the final four, Wozniacki has done something very special in New York this fortnight. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding that feat simply didn’t allow for a proper celebration.
In tennis, circumstances make it hard to appreciate results in and of themselves, on their own terms. When outside factors enter the picture, what should be cause for a parade is instead lost in the disappointment of a lopsided match or a confrontation which didn’t crackle.
After the compelling tumult and clamor of this tournament’s first week, the second week is landing with a thud. Everyone’s hoping for better matches, but given the fatigue and strain of the past several weeks — including but not limited to the Olympics — many of the players on both tours are feeling the fullness of whole-body aches and pains. Hopes remain, but it’s becoming harder and harder to expect riveting tennis over these next few days.
Gael Monfils making a major semifinal was the main story of day nine at the U.S. Open, but all the retirements and injuries at the USTA National Tennis Center are taking tennis’s best quality — its episodic tension — and pouring it down the drain.
Some people hope Monfils — and Wozniacki — win as this week moves along. Everyone hopes that we’ll get at least a few more memorable and stirring tennis matches before this tournament concludes.
It’s becoming harder to expect as much.