Golden Ones Back It Up

In the first week of a major tennis tournament, the focus is not so much on the top dogs, but on the underclass of tennis — the floaters, the young pups, the 29th seeds, the aging journeymen (and women), and the 21-year-olds (or thereabouts) whose teenage years have passed, putting them face-to-face with the reality that they need to begin to figure out life on the tour. In many ways, week one of a major is that fascinating journey in which tennis fans and pundits survey a landscape full of men and women who are confronted with an urgent task: Make use of your talents, or risk waking up, at age 27, with a Lukas Rosolian resume that speaks to nothing other than wastefulness.

The men’s first round is finally done at the 2012 United States Open (a reality that tennis fans should not have to deal with on a Thursday morning; if the United States Tennis Association wants a three-day first round for the men, it should start the tournament on a Sunday the way the French Tennis Federation does at Roland Garros). The women, for their part, are halfway through the second round. Already, we’ve seen so many members of the tennis underclass exasperate and frustrate with early flameouts.

Mikhail Youzhny made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. He then celebrated that feat by blowing a two-set lead in the first round to that notoriously weak-minded Luxembourger, Gilles Muller (a member of the “win-a-match-to-underscore-how-empty-a-career-he’s-had” roster).

Tommy Haas put together such a superb summer… until losing a two-set lead to the ultimate non-Nalbandianian (that’s the adjective describing Nalbandian — “Nalbandianian”…) underachiever in men’s tennis over the past decade, Ernests Gulbis.

Florian Mayer made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. He joined Youzhny on the bench by losing to Jack Sock in a match that wasn’t particularly close.

Denis Istomin, who has so much game, found a way to lose to Jurgen Zopp, denying him a chance to take on a tired and vulnerable Tomas Berdych in the second round.

Thomaz Bellucci — who, remember, has made a Masters semifinal and is wondrously talented — lost to that hardcourt titan, Pablo Andujar.

Viktor Troicki, who never met a (non-Davis Cup) opportunity he couldn’t squander, bowed out of New York quite meekly. So did Grigor Dimitrov. Jurgen Melzer has still never recovered from the shoulder injury he must have worsened when celebrating his Monte Carlo quarterfinal win over Roger Federer last year. Andreas Seppi, who looked like a top-10 player in Rome and Roland Garros, has lost all belief since he blew a two-set lead against Novak Djokovic in Paris. He got steamrolled in three quick sets by Tommy Robredo, who hasn’t been a factor on tour for at least two years if not three. Juan Monaco has overachieved this year, but his tank finally ran on empty in his first-round loss.

And that’s JUST the men.

Julia Goerges, at the end of a terrible 2012, lost in her first match in New York. So did Caroline Wozniacki, who had absolutely no business playing in New Haven the week before the Open, Davydenkoing her body into a state of diminished energy. Sabine Lisicki regularly delivers the goods at Wimbledon, but she just as regularly fails to re-assert herself in New York. She typically tumbled in round one. The player who beat her, Sorana Cirstea, has generated her own fair amount of expectations, but Cirstea couldn’t win her round-two match on Wednesday. That’s a typical narrative in the first five days of a major.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova looked like she had next-level chops when she battled Francesca Schiavone so gallantly at the French Open in 2011. She has not done anything of consequence ever since, and crashing out of the U.S. Open in the second round won’t improve her outlook, to say the least. A former semifinalist at the Open, Yanina Wickmayer, joined Pavs in the parade to LaGuardia Airport.

Tamira Paszek, who — like Lisicki — plays well at Wimbledon, had nothing to offer at the Open in her first-round loss. Christina McHale, the No. 21 seed, couldn’t make it out of round one.

That is a long casualty list for three days of tennis, three days in which only one men’s second round match has been played (Andy Murray winning last night against Ivan Dodig).

It all raises a basic point about the quality of tennis eras: Excellence in tennis — like various other topics under the sun — can be framed in many ways, but surely, the whole of tennis fans cannot deny this specific assertion: True excellence in tennis is found most centrally in the ability to back up results from one tournament to another. The important clarification to be made here is that this doesn’t mean everyone should be making major finals. Quarterfinal-level players should be making quarterfinals and fourth rounds on a regular basis. Third-round players should make third rounds at least three times per year at the majors.

The centrality of consistency as a revealer of tennis toughness is precisely why this era of men’s tennis has been so wondrous to behold. Three men have become consistent at the highest levels of performance, with a fourth player — Murray — regularly making semifinals to give himself a chance to break through in the near future. (Federer, after all, continued to make semifinals, and at Wimbledon, he finally received the proverbial bad day at the office from Djokovic that he was looking for. Given that window of opportunity, he seized it with full force, as he has so often managed to do in his career.)

As for the women, the reign of Serena Williams might point to weakness throughout the rest of the WTA, but that seems like a misperception at the moment as opposed to an accurate claim. Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova aren’t winning every tournament in sight, but they’ve been admirably consistent this year. Angelique Kerber is most certainly backing up results each week. Agnieszka Radwanska finally made a major semifinal and a major final, acquitting herself quite well at Wimbledon. Maria Kirilenko is putting in some solid work on tour. It’s the quartet of Samantha Stosur, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, and Marion Bartoli that has fallen short at the majors this year, but in a larger context, the WTA has delivered a strong year at the majors. The women outclassed the men at both Roland Garros and SW19.

The bottom line remains firmly in place: When players live up to their talent — whatever that level of talent might be — tennis wins. The early losers at the U.S. Open unnerve tennis fans to no end, but the enduringly consistent champions of this era compensate for that aggravation by showing us what a golden era looks like.

Enjoy the second round!


About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

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