Lawn tennis–even when not played on grass–is a bizarre sport. It is odd because of its wacky 0/love, 15, 30, 40, deuce/advantage/game points system. Numbers and words suggest that it’s more algebra than simple arithmetic, and that is close to where I am going. You can end up winning a tennis match even though you have lost on many counts. What is essential is winning critical points, getting the edge over your adversary when it matters most. Not just scoring more goals, as in soccer. Not getting to the finish line first as in skiing or track and field. It’s not quite like cricket where you can create a no-result even though you could judge a winner.
Take a Grand Slam match, played over five sets. You can win 0-6, 0-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6: you win 21 games and the loser wins 30, but goes home while you crow in the locker room, because you beat out the competition in tie-breaks. The games could be any score, yet the winner has actually won fewer points than the loser; check some statistics to see how close may clear victories are. That would make many a player mad, knowing that he or she has outplayed an opponent but is left to lick wounds. If tennis was just first to 100 points, and winning by two clear points, it would not have these odd outcomes. Tennis is about winning at the edge, at game critical moments. The great players are both very good in a general sense, but especially good at those critical moments. When they get a chance to take the edge, they often do. Players who do not rise very far on the world rankings are often really excellent players but play the critical points badly. Once they turn that corner, their careers as champions start to take a notable rise.
I watched two matches yesterday at the US Open and saw that fully. Jamaica’s new sports hero, Dustin Brown (actually born in Germany of a Jamaican father and German mother), fresh from getting past the first round–the first time for a Jamaican in some 40 years–found himself playing world number 4, Andy Murray. The first set was close and entertaining, as Brown showed the range of fast, powerful, flashy tennis that has enabled him to get up the ATP rankings this year. Brown was quirky, with his neon shoe laces of different colours (one orange, the other looked yellow). He did not sit down at change overs–Jamaicans are fully of energy. He went out before the umpire called time. He wanted to use the same ball if he had served an ace or a great winning shot. He pocketed the ball if he had made a bad shot or been beaten by a great shot. All of those things presumably give him an edge in his mind. Andy Murray figured some of it out: he kept the ball if Brown had served up an ace, so Brown went to the net and waited and waited, then had to go to plan B. Edge dulled. While he kept it close for a set, getting to 5-5, when it came to the crunch, Murray broke his serve and won the set 7-5. In the second set, things started to slide and even when Brown had break points he could not capitalize and Murray edged him out 6-3. In the third set, Brown had little left and Murray had figured out all that Brown had to offer: the good lobs were not good enough; the cute drop shots were not cute enough against Murray’s speed; the powerful drives were not consistent enough to push Murray all match long. Brown sank 6-0 in the third set. So, Murray won 14 of the last 17 games. What Brown needs to learn to move up into the top 100 is what Murray has learned, how to get the most out of the important marginal situations, not having moments of brilliance when they do not really matter. It’s a hard and cruel lesson in tennis.
The second match was between Rafael Nadal (world number 1 and top seed at Flushing) against Uzbek, Denis Istomin, an up and coming player now at his career high rank of 39. He came with flash, too, under the night lights, with a glowing orange shirt. He too came with athleticism, and it seemed the same never-say-die approach of Nadal. Though he lost the first set 6-3, he regrouped in the second and grinded his way to a tie-break, and a 5-1 lead in that. He got there with a spectacular series of plays, including a 10 foot slide to out drop-shot Nadal, and get the Spaniard’s applause. But, then, that moment’s brilliance fizzled, as Nadal reeled off six straight points to win 7-5. Nadal had seen what he needed to, and had the answer, most importantly not making errors; he left that to Istomin, who really beat himself. Nadal is special, I admit, but he has learned how not to lose in tennis, rather than just how to win. If you can make your opponent play one more shot it gives a chance for one more error.
Whether learning how to get and keep the edge is an aspect of a player’s personality or something that gets built by the team supporting the player, without it, the player may get to be good but not great in terms of winning when it matters most in matches. We know that Dustin Brown has struggled to get good support for his career from Jamaican organizations, and all his talent is not enough, if he cannot turn a difficult and critical corner. Murray, Istomin and Nadal are all like many modern players, coached by a parent or relative, and have shown abilities to learn from mistakes in their early careers and to eliminate or reduce them; Istomin is still on that learning curve, but I think he will get there fast. The great tennis players seem to have a certain grit instilled in them that helps them find the edge. It is not a given that that comes from being tutored by family, but it is common. Roger Federer is odd amongst modern great tennis players in many respects: he often has no coach nearby and was not taken to his high levels by a relative. But, he has been a master of getting the edge without the visible help of others to figure out how to do that. Whether it is an aspect of a player’s personality or something that gets built by the team supporting the player, without knowing how to hone that edge, the player may get to be good but not great in terms of winning when it matters most in matches. Tennis is very much about winning the right battles in order to seal a victory in a war.