Circumstances, Yes. Excuses? No.

It is one of the simplest but most important distinctions in everyday human discourse: separating excuses from reasons, partitioning whining from the helpful explanation. The two get mistaken and conflated all the time. In the wake of the loss of the hero/central persona/object of fan affection on this, a fan-driven tennis blog maintained by people who are NOT paid to operate it, it’s worth diving into the difference between an excuse and a reason.

One of the best tennis commentators not found in front of a television camera is Andrew Burton (@burtonad on Twitter), longtime board moderator, content contributor, occasional in-person major watcher, and – most importantly – a man in full, an observer of the tennis scene who is magnanimous in all seasons yet unsparing in analysis if it needs to be critical. Mr. Burton calls ’em as he sees ’em, living up to an analyst’s creed even while he carries the flag of Federer fandom with evident love and fidelity.

I reference Mr. Burton because he is the champion of the view that there are no asterisks for any tennis match, ever. I respect the view and the thought process Burton uses to arrive at his strongly-held assertion. I largely agree with it, but I do reserve a few occasions in which that little mark – made infamous by Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick’s application of it to Roger Maris’s home-run record, established in 1961 – is justifiable. This sets the groundwork for our larger discussion of “excuse-versus-reason.”

(Side note: Frick applied the asterisk because Maris broke Babe Ruth’s previously existing home-run record in a 162-game season. Ruth set his original record in a 154-game season. We can debate that topic until the cows come home, but that’s the first and most (in)famous occasion in which the notion of an asterisk entered a mainsteam sports conversation.)

An asterisk is allowable if there is a certain degree of taint which makes the result hard to accept on the level. This means that a bad call is made by the chair umpire, a (tantrum-based) default occurs, or a badly losing player is rescued by an abrupt injury that forces the winning player to retire. Those kinds of incidents do merit asterisks, but they’re quite rare.

An asterisk is most certainly not applicable in the many instances in which competitions are won fairly and squarely. If Roger Federer wins a tournament without facing Rafael Nadal, that’s not a situation worthy of an asterisk. If Andy Murray wins the U.S. Open without facing Nadal or Federer, that’s not an asterisk event, either.

When Serena Williams was plainly jobbed on a crucial line call (on a ball that wasn’t even close to being out) against Jennifer Capriati in the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinals, the match outcome deserved the cloud of an asterisk. It’s not a negative reflection on Capriati; she had nothing to do with the unfair turning point. Nevertheless, Serena was not beaten due to an honest arbitration of the proceedings. She played an excellent shot on a big point, only to have it ruled out in the pre-Hawkeye age. She really did not lose in any meaningful or honest sense. Enter the asterisk, then.

Fernando Gonzalez’s win over James Blake in the semifinals of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing deserved an asterisk. Gonzo’s racquet clearly touched a ball on a point at the net with the Chilean serving at 8-9 in the final set. Yet, Gonzalez failed to acknowledge the event and concede the point to Blake, since the chair umpire didn’t make the ruling himself. Especially in the Olympics, an event before which athletes take an oath pledging to display sportsmanship, Gonzalez tainted his match win and silver medal result. Asterisk. It’s the special situations which demand that little mark.

Roger Federer’s loss to Tomas Berdych in the U.S. Open deserves no such label. It was a straightforward match in which Berdych, unlike the memorable (or for him, nightmarish) 2009 Australian Open fourth-rounder won by Federer, regrouped after gacking away the third set with trainwrecky errors. Berdych was in a heap of trouble when he – a la Julien Benneteau in the third round of Wimbledon this year against Federer – dove on the court and, a point later, found himself down love-30 at 1-all in the fourth set. Federer was rapidly gaining momentum, and it seemed that another two-set comeback was in progress. However, Berdych steeled himself – something he has done so rarely in a hugely wasteful career – and played four strong points to hold. That was Federer’s last true challenge to Berdych’s supremacy.

The Czech, for once, did not mentally check out of a match. As tennis commentator Mary Carillo has so astutely said about the most enduring and important challenge faced by any professional athlete, Berdych managed to “get out of his own way.” He allowed his talent to spill out in full flower. He has owned the skill set of a 10-time major champion (much like Marat Safin and David Nalbandian), yet this win notched only his third major semifinal appearance (he’s reached only six quarterfinals) with his 27th birthday just a week and a half away, on Sept. 17.

Berdych fully deserved this win. He played better and exhibited the mental toughness he has lacked for so long. The match was on his racquet, something that is often (not always, but often) the case against Federer. Not many men can say that they can compete with Federer on even terms, but Berdych always has that potential.

What needs to be amplified about Berdych’s victory is that he took advantage of circumstances that favored him. It’s true that Federer has overcome walkover-based layoffs in majors before (Tommy Haas at Wimbledon in 2007), but Federer – at 31 and not in his prime at 25 – needs routine and rhythm more than in the past. This is the way of the professional athlete as s/he ages: dependable flow of action keeps an older machine running smoothly (see Federer’s machine-like performance in Cincinnati; a three-day break between matches would have gummed up Woger even then… such are the laws of sports physics).

Let’s put it this way: If a walkover-based layoff was going to be cited as a reason for Federer’s defeat; if rust was going to emerge as a primary contributing factor in a subpar performance, how could last night’s events do anything to remotely refute those contentions?

Federer entered this match with superb rhythm. He slowly ramped up his game and rather clinically took down a talented player (like Berdych, another underachieving headcase, Fernando Verdasco) in the third round. Even if Mardy Fish wouldn’t have offered much resistance in the fourth round, winning a 90-minue match would have kept the Fed quite lubricated. (No jokes from the distaff side, please.) Berdych simply took advantage of the situation. That’s not whining or excuse-making; that’s tipping the cap to Berdych for seizing a moment of profound opportunity.

One would do well to recall that Novak Djokovic was fatigued – not physically, but clearly on a mental level – after Fabio Fognini gave him a walkover in the 2011 French Open quarterfinals. A certain Swiss grandpa nicknamed “Pants” by a Picket Fence cheese hunter took advantage of the circumstances in that subsequent semifinal. The Fognini walkover was not an excuse for Djokovic’s loss; Federer owned the crunch-time moments and proved to be the better player on the day. It was no different in Federer-Berdych last night in New York. Yet, the point remains: the walkover had an effect. This isn’t something that’s true in the mathematically certain way that 2 + 2 = 4, but it’s true in the way that you know a criminal is lying when his eyes change or his voice stutters.

If the walkover was not going to matter in this match, Federer would have played a clean and clinical first set, only for Berdych to rise above the moment and beat him anyway. That didn’t happen. Federer shanked balls without Berdych entering the conversation at several points. If rust was a factor in last night’s match (and it was), how could the first seven games possibly REFUTE such a contention? They can’t. They really can’t. It’s to Berdych’s great credit, though, that he pounced when given this chance.

Asterisks. Excuses. Reasons. Those three words need to be separated all the time… not just in tennis discussions, but in all discussions under the sun. The common thread that they all share, however, is that they can (and should, and must) be distinguished only after examining the circumstances of each unique life situation on a case-by-case basis.

Andy Murray took advantage of the circumstances surrounding his gold medal match against Federer at the Olympics. No asterisks, no excuses, but some very evident reasons.

Federer took advantage of the circumstances surrounding his Cincinnati win over Djokovic. No asterisks, no excuses, but some very evident reasons.

Maria Sharapova took advantage of rain delays in each of her last two U.S. Open match wins. Nope, no asterisks — she made use of good fortune, but when competing between the painted white lines, she won fair and square. No excuses for Nadia Petrova and Marion Bartoli… just some very evident reasons.

The next time you think the word “asterisk” is merited, step back and be sure that a match is tainted by a bad call or the failure of a player to concede a point in the Gonzo-ian or (Nicolas) Kiefer-ian tradition. If it’s not, shelve the asterisk, tip the cap to the winning player, and move on.

Roger Federer, to his great credit, did that in his press conference at the U.S. Open last night after his loss to a superior player. We, Federer fans, can (and should… and must) do the same thing.

No asterisks. Tomas Berdych took advantage of circumstances, which is what he has failed to do for a great many years… except in June of 2010… and last night in New York.


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About Matt Zemek

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

6 responses to “Circumstances, Yes. Excuses? No.”

  1. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says :

    Nicely done. As painful as it is to read (and was to watch) this is spot on. Roger just didn’t have it last night unlike in the Madrid final where he was able to defeat Berdych after going down a set. Funny you should mention the Olympics final. I’ve neither seen or heard many pundits even give a mention of Roger’s long and tense semi. Saw lots of headlines about “Murray trashing Federer” and those were the kinder ones. None of these things merit an asterisk but a mention of possible reasons should be in order.

  2. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    By the time Roger started to find his game, he was already down two sets and a break. Against a lesser player like Almagro, he may have been able to get away with the bad form in the first two sets (after he was broken in the first set at least), but against Berdych, a big hitter that can take any match off your racket at any instance, that just doesn’t work. Roger needed to be sharp from the word “play” and he wasn’t. By the time he got into rhythm after the long 4-day break, one mistake would cost him. That mistake turned out to be that net cord at 3-4, 30-30, right after Federer made a miraculous stabbing drop volley.

    I guess the match was disappointing because Roger had all the momentum after the 3rd and you felt he would push it to 5. But credit to Berdych, he didn’t fold as he did almost 4 years ago in Australia. Anyway, this has been such a great year for Roger already that I’m not too upset after having time to think about it. Berdych was the better player, and Roger needed to be much better from the start, but unfortunately the circumstances did not allow it. He tried and tried and tried but he just couldn’t find his game in the big moments, apart from the 2nd half of the 3rd set.

    Well, onwards and upwards. 4 more Slam chances next year, and he’ll have the chance to end the year #1. I think that is his main goal right now. At the end of 2009, even after disappointing losses to Djokovic in Basel and Benneteau in Paris, and then the SF exit at the YEC where he was two points from making the final, he seemed very exxcited coming into 2010 as the World #1 – and that, in turn, helped him win the Australian Open. I hope a similar pattern can befall him at the start of 2013.

  3. ceeza says :

    I’ve always had a problem with the narrative that Roger did not give Berdych credit in 2010 Wimbledon.. His his leg WAS strapped the entire tournament and he never made it an talking point throughout the tournament.. His leg hasn’t been strapped since.. He was asked about the strap after the loss and answered honestly.. His biggest criticism after the match wasn’t his leg but on himself and his inability to make an adjustmentment. I’d also add his last leg strap before that match was Monte Carlo 2005.. That’s 2 leg straps in 7 years or 140+ matches.. He deserved better from the journos than a “no credit” narrative.. Read the transcript NOT the narrative from the “journalist”..

    • ceeza says :

      *2 leg straps in 7 years or 140+ tournaments not matches.. I’d say the guy should be allowed to honestly say it sucked to play with that thing on his leg without journalist saying he’s making an excuse..

  4. Flo says :

    Andrew Burton’s twitter feed is a wonderful companion during tennis matches. Sharp guy that one. Nice to see him get some props.

  5. Patrice morton says :

    okay so where did this whole asterisks thing come from. Fed lost fair and square. Berdych played so much better than he did and so instead of commenting on how well Berdych and how poorly fed did you comment on Feds walkover and the fact that berdych has copped out of so many of his other matches oh please. As far as I’m concerned this article is just your excuse of a way of trying to come to terms with Feds loss. Geez he can’t win everything and sometimes people just play better tennis than he does! Come on.

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