The Wasted Upset And The Nurturing Of Tennis Talent
Andy Murray’s 11:02 p.m. “beat the clock” adventure was a one-of-a-kind experience. Marin Cilic and Sam Querrey merely played the second-longest match in Wimbledon history (though only HALF as long as Mahut-Isner). Serena Williams and Zheng Jie played one of the best third-round matches in the history of any major tennis tournament. Brian Baker continued his feel-good story. Mardy Fish authored a brand-new feel-good narrative of his own. Tamira Paszek, Ana Ivanovic, and Sabine Lisicki are rebounding better than LeBron James did in the NBA Finals. Maria Sharapova remains the consummately consistent player of the WTA Tour. David Ferrer is playing his best tennis at age 30. PETRA KVITOVA SMASH THINGS!
Oh, yeah, there’s this minor little point, too: Rafael Nadal lost in the second round while Roger Federer came two points away from being knocked out in the third round. It’s been a remarkable week filled with riveting action and explosive developments at Wimbledon… and all of this doesn’t even include the off-court dramas instigated by Gilles Simon and Ivo Karlovic.
Yet, for all of those genuinely arresting stories, tonight’s Wimbledon reflection focuses on (because it needs to…) the curious case of Lukas Rosol, the man who burst onto the scene at SW19 with his upset of Nadal. I like to create or contextualize debates that don’t happen often enough in the public square, and Rosol’s journey this past week offers a perfect reason to develop a familiar tennis discussion.
Tennis fans are very familiar with the upset that doesn’t go anywhere. A journeyman or newbie comes from nowhere to knock off their favorite player in a major tournament (or at least a Masters event)… and then lose in the very next round. This is not, however, a simple surveying of winners and losers. The more particular aspect of these kinds of upsets is that they involve an amazing performance by the obscure underdog, not merely a victory. For instance, when Novak Djokovic lost to Jurgen Melzer in the 2010 French Open quarterfinals, Melzer – who has never made any other major semifinal in his career – did not produce an all-timer of an effort. Djokovic lost stamina and consistency after gaining a two-set lead. The match was as much about Djokovic’s inability to master the psychological side of tennis as it was a testament to Melzer’s emergent quality in 2010. That was not a typically “wasted upset.”
To be sure, there WAS a “wasted upset” involving Djokovic in the past three years at the majors, but it wasn’t Melzer’s feat in 2010. Guess who pulled off an “empty shocker” against Djokovic? Yep — Philipp Kohlschreiber, the very same man who beat Lukas Rosol on Saturday at Wimbledon, two days after the Czech stunned Rafa. Kohlschreiber’s takedown of Djokovic in the third round of the 2009 French Open marked the last major tournament in which Djokovic didn’t reach the quarterfinals. (The Serbian has made the last 12 major quarterfinals and can make it 13 with a win over Viktor Troicki on Monday.)
The enormity of Kohlschreiber’s feat against Djokovic was considerable; moreover, it was amplified by a pinch of (then-)recent prowess: The German veteran had dismissed a much better and more formidable Andy Roddick from the third round of the Australian Open in 2008, just 16 months before. Kohlschreiber, much like another tennis underachiever, Richard Gasquet, possesses visually pleasing strokes and above-average shotmaking capacity. It’s true that any top-30 tennis player owns a well-developed and appreciably multifaceted skill set, but it’s clear when a given player has the tools needed to become a top-10 force. Kohlschreiber’s arsenal of shots — made plain in Melbourne in January of 2008 and then in Paris in the late spring of 2009 — stamped him as a man who should have been able to find his way to a several major quarterfinals and at least an occasional semifinal. To date, Kohlschreiber — who will be 29 this October — has still not made a major quarterfinal, though he’ll have a chance to break through on Monday when he faces Brian Baker. The German — against Roddick and Djokovic — produced two classic cases of “wasted upsets.”
It seems harsh to use the very term “wasted upset.” One can say, with a definite degree of legitimacy (and, moreover, human decency), that a day’s upset is always and irrevocably special for the victor in the present moment. The win gave the underdog an unusually fat paycheck and an undeniable amount of satisfaction. Athletes win and athletes lose — why try to rain on someone’s parade by dumping the “wasted upset” label on them? This is what Rosol is absorbing from many fans — especially Rafa fans — after his expected “comedown” loss against Kohlschreiber, a match in which the Czech didn’t show up until the third set.
To express empathy with Rosol and his plight, let’s underscore something about his challenge on Saturday: Playing Nadal is mentally draining in its own right; finding the energy to BEAT Nadal demands that much more inner strength. It was an entirely new experience for Rosol to play a major-tournament match after pulling off an upset few of his brother professionals have ever managed to forge. It was a big ask for Rosol to win today, and for THAT reason, the Czech deserves some slack.
If Rosol quickly returns to obscurity and doesn’t become a fourth-round (or better) performer at the majors in the next year and a half, one can then say that his upset of Nadal will have been truly and considerably wasted. This line of thinking is at the heart of what it means to refer to tennis upsets in such a manner.
It’s not harsh to think of upsets as wasted events… as long as one allows the majors to run their course over an 18- to 24-month window after those upsets occur. George Bastl never backed up his Wimbledon win over Pete Sampras in 2002 with anything of consequence thereafter. Wasted upset. Peter Doohan never made a peep after stunning Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1987. Wasted upset. Ernests Gulbis, a player who has already proven he can’t channel his evident and immense talent into solid results, fell flat on his face one match after taking down Tomas Berdych at this year’s Wimbledon. Wasted upset.
The reality should be easy to grasp at this point: You don’t have to win two or three matches in the same tournament in which you red-line your game (also called “treeing”) en route to an upset, but you had better play at a level consistent with that upset before too long. If you don’t, you’re wasting a boatload of potential, and that — Picket Fence readers — merits the criticism and disapproval of the wider tennis community.
You’ve just been given examples of “wasted upsets.” It’s helpful, therefore, to give examples of huge upsets that were NOT wasted:
* Robin Soderling over Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open. Soderling used that moment to become a better player, a top-10 player, a two-time French Open finalist. That was a catapult to improved performance. Clearly, it was and is not a wasted upset when viewed in the fullness of time.
* Svetlana Kuznetsova over Serena Williams at the 2009 French Open. The Kooze is one of the biggest underachievers in the history of women’s tennis, relative to her talent, but any upset that leads to a major championship cannot be seen as a waste. It’s not as though Kuznetsova used this win to become an elite player on a regular basis, but she did use it to register a substantial accomplishment. This has more wastefulness than the Soderling upset of Nadal over a larger span of time, but it’s less wasteful in that it gave the Kooze something Soderling still lacks: a major title (and moreover, a second one). It’s not a wasted upset. Samantha Jane Stosur’s victory over Serena Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final should be seen within the same basic frame of reference.
* Lori McNeil over Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1994. McNeil went all the way to the semifinals of that Wimbledon tournament after rocking Graf and the tennis world in the first round. McNeil made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and reached a U.S. Open semifinal as well. This is a player who carved out a respectable career despite the limitations of a fairly small frame, advancing through major-tournament draws with guile and a sustained attentiveness to her craft. Not a wasted upset.
It’s too early to definitively say that Lukas Rosol’s upset of Rafael Nadal was a waste. The true measure will come in the next year and a half (through the 2013 U.S. Open). If Rosol — now aware of how much lightning he has in his right hand, how good he can be if he puts his mind to it — does not lift his game to a higher level on a consistent basis, it can safely be said that his talent will have been poured down the drain. If Rosol — who clearly showcased a level of hitting worthy of a major semifinalist against Nadal — cannot use these next six major tournaments to park his rear end in the middle-to-late stages of the second week, his victory over a legend will carry an unmistakably hollow quality, a cruelly empty feel, when the book of tennis history is written.
What is a wasted upset? You now have an adequate frame of reference. Keep it very much in mind at the upcoming U.S. Open and throughout 2013.