Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 5, 2021

The Tall Task Of Playing Against The Odds

It was an historic quip, as evidenced by how many tennis fans remember the line more than four decades later.  Before he died a tragic and accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning while staying in a friend’s guesthouse, Vitas Gerulaitis was one of those athletes casual fans know they recognize, even if they’re not quite sure why.  In 1977, the year there were two Australian Opens because of schedule changes, he lifted the trophy at the December edition of that tennis major.  Gerulaitis also twice made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon and was a finalist at both Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, the latter in 1979, not long after the USTA relocated the U.S. Open to its now-permanent home, just across the Long Island Railroad’s busy tracks from Shea Stadium (then) and Citi Field (now).  He lost, in straight sets, to John McEnroe. 

That result was what fans expected.  Gerulaitis was seeded fourth at the ‘79 Open, the high-water mark of his career rankings.  But then as now, there was a distinct hierarchy in the game.  That was most apparent just a few months later, when the Brooklyn native was back in his home city for the 1980 Masters at Madison Square Garden.  As far as the tennis scribes were concerned, the season-ending showdown among the top eight men featured McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Bjorn Borg, with five other guys, including Gerulaitis, just filling in the bracket.  The disparity was especially pronounced when Connors and Gerulaitis faced off in the semifinals, since the previous sixteen matches between the two had all gone Connors’ way.  But against all odds, Gerulaitis prevailed, 7-5, 6-2.  At his post-match press conference, he told the scribes who had written him off before the first serve, “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

The second-tier tennis star never took himself too seriously, and the retort to the media’s collective pre-match mindset got a good laugh.  But in a sport where so much of the attention, renown, and money go to a handful of individuals at the very top of the game, it also reflected a mindset that, then and now, is essential for the overwhelming number of players who fill the ranks of the ATP and WTA.

Fans were reminded of that on a sunny Saturday at this year’s U.S. Open.  When Gerulaitis roamed the grounds, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was decades away from being so named and looked very different then than it does today.  Opened in 1978, the headquarters of tennis in this country has expanded across the old site of two World’s Fairs to become a tennis city, with three stadiums and thirty-three courts in all, including practice areas.  For two weeks every year, as August’s heat gives way to September’s promise of autumn, the 45 acres host a throng of humanity.  Some are devoted to the game, but many are tennis fans for a day, drawn to the far end of the number 7 subway line for the chance to see a star or two in action, and stand in a long line for the chance to buy a $25 lobster roll or $20 cocktail, commemorative plastic cup included.  The crowds wouldn’t be there if the attraction was merely those stars hitting balls to themselves off walls, which means that during the first week of the tournament, as the 128-player singles brackets are winnowed through the early rounds, the competitors across the net from the famous faces on the show courts are lesser or little known, with chances that match their fame. 

Upsets happen, of course.  Women’s tennis is in a particularly unsettled state, without the usual three or four consistently dominant stars who are seemingly assured of deep runs at every Grand Slam event.  The evening sessions on both Friday and Saturday produced stunners at Arthur Ashe Stadium, with third seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka falling Friday night, and top seed Ash Barty losing Saturday evening.  But the central reason upsets are so exciting is that they are rare.  On most days of the Open’s first week, the results run true to form.  What is it then, that keeps players like Greet Minnen or Kei Nishikori going? 

Minnen is a 24-year-old Belgian whose only WTA title came three years ago in doubles.  She walked onto the court at Louis Armstrong Stadium Saturday morning ranked 104th in the world in singles.  Her opponent, Bianca Andreescu, was three years younger but far more accomplished.  The Canadian was still a teenager in 2019 when, by the literal luck of the draw, she advanced to the U.S. Open final without facing a top-10 player.  But once there, she proved her mettle by denying Serena Williams’s quest for a 24th major title, winning in straight sets to become the first teenage Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006.  Andreescu lost all of last year’s truncated season to injury but was back in Gotham healthy and seeded 6th.  The match was competitive for exactly three games, with both players holding their initial service games and Andreescu then doing the same her second time serving.  After that, the rout was on.  Andreescu won 6-1, 6-2, easily outpacing Minnen in virtually every statistical category.

Andreescu’s easy victory started the day’s action.  By early afternoon thousands had made their way into Arthur Ashe Stadium for the third-round appearance of world number one Novak Djokovic, who can claim the first calendar year Grand Slam in men’s singles since Rod Laver in 1969 with a victory at Flushing Meadows.  With long-time rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer fading due to age and injury, and the next generation of male stars yet to threaten his dominance, Djokovic is heavily favored to do just that.  His third-round opponent was the unseeded Nishikori, the 31-year-old from Japan who once was ranked as high as 4th, but whose career now seems to be winding down.

Much like the earlier women’s match, the contest between Djokovic and Nishikori was briefly competitive.  The challenger even broke the favorite’s serve once in the first set and held on to win it 7-6.  But Nishikori was fighting for every point on his serve, while Djokovic was often serving out his own games with relative ease.  That advantage only grew as the match went on, and in the end, fans stood and cheered when Djokovic closed out a 6-7, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 victory.

There are obvious financial incentives for players like Minnen and Nishikori.  By advancing to the third round, both earned $180,000 for their week in Gotham.  And there is the fact that upsets do happen.  But while hopes and dreams are vitally important, in a solitary sport like tennis, it is essential for players to be free of illusion.  Surely both Minnen and Nishikori knew the odds were heavily against them.  That was probably especially true for Nishikori, who walked onto the court knowing he had lost, yes, 16 times in a row to Djokovic.  Three and a half hours later, there were plenty of pundits quick to point out that someone could beat Kei Nishikori 17 times in a row.

But in their clever crowing the talking heads missed the point.  Had Gerulaitis lost that long-ago match, as Minnen and Nishikori lost theirs on Saturday, he would have readied himself for his next showdown against Connors, just as the other two now prepare for their next tournament.  Perhaps he, or they, would finally prevail against a superior opponent on the 20th or 25th try.  But had victory never come, either then or now, that mere outcome would take nothing away from the determination, drive, and courage required to walk onto the court in the first place.  That is what keeps them going.  It is why, even when there is no upset, they actually play the games.


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