The Wreckage

June 16, 2018

It can be hard to sift through all of it; there’s never enough time. Finish the brutal slog through Europe’s dirt and arrive in Paris for a culmination that lasts—what—a week? Rafael Nadal has won again. Simona Halep finally got hers. These could be drab lines from the ESPN ticker, scrolling and gone as quickly as they came. We are already playing more events; the tour and its imagery are turning from orange to green. We move on because we have to. We have noticed before that all this is relentless.

 

But there are fragments worth examining in the shrapnel that the calendar leaves behind.

A week and a half later I still see Novak Djokovic down match point in a tiebreak, after blowing countless chances to find his own footing in a truly bizarre quarterfinal. He decided to serve and volley; Novak Djokovic, the great baseliner of our age, did not want to grind out any more points. We know this because he let Cecchinato’s return sail past him, hoping it would land out. It didn’t. It floated but dropped gently in the corner, and you could hear it touch down in the surrounding silence. In the explosion that ensued—Cecchinato collapsing to the dirt amidst the shrieks, Novak staring wide eyed at the line and the day and possibly many of the accumulated days before that—it felt like something had been irreparably torn.

 

Hindsight makes everything obvious. Someday we will draw easy lines through the many endings to the stories of the era. For now, while we sit mired in the thick of it, we should keep hold of the moment when Novak Djokovic let that return float past his shoulder, untouched.

Lost in the joy of the Halep win, I still see the tennis Sloane Stephens played to reach the brink of a major championship on her worst surface. She’s found consistency to match her power, and she moves more sharply every match. I do not think that Sloane Stephens is waiting for anyone’s blessing, anymore. She now seems to believe—actually believe, in the way that doesn’t require you to remind anyone of it out loud—that she is the best tennis player in the world. In a wide-open field like the current women’s game, sometimes the truth of that statement simply depends on saying so and meaning it.

Meanwhile, I still see Alex Sverev meekly exiting a tournament he had already lost rounds ago by playing messy, time-consuming tennis against players he should have made efficient work of. He now finds himself entrenched in what one would think are mutually exclusive narratives: why hasn’t he won yet and he has all the time in the world. Alex Sverev does have all the time in the world, and he will until he doesn’t. He is an inevitable future champion. He should remember that the future is a point that never arrives.

And yet, as we scrutinize Thiem, Sverev, Coric, or Kyrgios to find our next breath of fresh air, I still see Juan Martin Del Potro resuming the run it looked for years like he would never get to finish. We do not have to wait to see if he has the stomach for this. We do not have to wait for his talent to bloom, or for him to grow up. We know exactly what he is, and for the first time in a very long time, he is healthy.

Most of all I still see, in this latest French Open, a strange space between where we’ve been and where we’re going. I suppose any sane person would call this the present, but it feels less solid than that. We are watching the last vestiges of a past generation keep hold of the game for just a little longer—Nadal and Federer, both in their mid-thirties, have now somehow combined for the last six major titles, despite it being 2018 and not 2008. And yet, the wave meant to replace them continues not to arrive. So here we are, stuck.

 

Something we’re all learning is that time moves forward whether you’ve designed the future to your liking or not. This truth plays out in tennis in ways we find vaguely charming; look at these likable people continuing to show up, week after week, win after win. Isn’t it funny that no one will take the game away from them? But the results of this forward march in other spaces, away from the game, feel far less inviting.

 

Think of everything else happening right now, tennis or not. How desperate are we for something new that isn’t fleeting? One thing something as trivial as tennis could do is show us that this is still possible. In that way, chronology is a blessing: each second in which the new moment does not arrive is soon replaced by one where it might. The clay-court season has ended; it feels like we are where we were and yet here we are, elsewhere. In sifting through its wreckage I do not know what we’ve found, other than the chance to keep looking. The grass awaits. We will.

 

 

 

 

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